The Dreams I Dream

The Dreams I Dream
Brian Zahnd

And it shall come to pass afterward
That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh;
Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
Your old men shall dream dreams,
Your young men shall see visions.
-Joel 2:28

The prophet Joel says the outpouring of the Spirit results in dreams and visions. They’re similar, but not exactly the same. Visions are prose and need a plan; dreams are poetry and need only be dreamt. Visions are still a little bit tethered to what we tend to think is possible; dreams are a portal to a world where all things are possible. Dreams are truly transcendental — we are free to dream of that which we have no idea how it could come to pass. I’m not talking about daydreams, pipedreams, idle dreams; I’m talking about Spirit-inspired dreams. As I open to the Spirit — the agent of all possibility — I’ve dreamed some dreams about a future church.

I dream of a church that is a house of love, a city of refuge, a shelter from the storm.

The beleaguered souls in the house of fear desperately need a house of love. The accused, canceled, and set upon need a city of refuge. The weary and worn, exhausted from the constant strain of caustic culture wars, need a shelter from the storm. This is precisely what the church is called to be. Sunday morning should be a weekly leave from the constant battle of life. The password in our churches is the exchange of peace: The peace of Christ be with you. And also with you.

I dream of a church that is a pioneer in the way of peace and never again a chaplain to the masters of war.

The greatest infidelity of the church has been to serve the masters of war. In the hagiographic legend, Constantine on the eve of the battle for the Milvian bridge saw a cross in the heavens with the words, “In this sign you shall conqueror.” That was the beginning of killing in the name of the cross — a grotesque departure from the nonviolent peace tradition the church had held for three centuries. At the Milvian bridge a deal was made with the devil that eventually led to the two world wars in Europe where baptized Christians slaughtered one another by the millions in the name of national allegiance. The future of the church is found in its primal past of renouncing war and waging peace.

I dream of a church that excels in contemplative practices and contemplative stances.

Instead of culture war Christians we need contemplative Christians. The problem with the Christian left and the Christian right is that “Christian” gets reduced to adjective duty in service to the all-important ideological noun. The last thing the world or the church needs is another reactionary left/right idealogue. Canadian Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo says, “When religion collapses into an ideology it is no longer faith. Religion itself becomes lust when what you call love is motivated by hate.” It’s through the practices of contemplative prayer that we move out of the realm of reactive dualism. The ultimate goal of contemplative prayer is not detachment, but a solid grounding in love.

I dream of a church that is at home in God’s good world instead of huddled anxiously at the departure gate.

The idea that the goal of the Christian life is to go to heaven in general, and rapture theology in particular, have done incalculable damage to how millions of believers think about the future. The Christian eschatological hope is not to go to heaven, but to bring heaven to earth. The blessed hope is not that we’re going, but Christ is coming. The closing scene in the book of Revelation is a picture of heaven and earth reunited in holy matrimony — a promise that is in the process of becoming. Jesus Christ as set forth in scripture is the savior of the world — not the savior of parts of people for another world. Christians who are correctly taught what the Bible proclaims from Genesis to Revelation should of all people lead the way in caring for God’s good earth.

I dream of a church where faith and science are not at odds.

In 1633 Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” for championing the Copernican theory of heliocentrism. Under threat of torture Galileo was forced to recant. The Roman Catholic Church at the dawn of modernity thought that if the earth was not the center of the cosmos, then the Bible was proved wrong, and Christian faith would collapse. Of course, we know now that Copernicus and Galileo were correct, and the Catholic Church was mistaken; the earth revolves around the sun…and Christianity did not collapse. From this colossal embarrassment the Catholic Church learned a valuable lesson and now celebrates scientific inquiry. Today science classes in Catholic high schools spend more time studying evolution than the science classes in public high schools. It’s time for evangelicals to learn the lesson that Catholics have learned. I regularly tell my church that I don’t know of a single peer-reviewed scientific theory that is any threat to Christian faith. All truth is God’s truth, and in the end scientists and theologians are seeking the same thing.

I dream of a church that is conservative because there are wisdom traditions worth preserving.

I have deep respect for theological conservatism — not the faux conservatism of modern fundamentalism, but the true conservatism that draws upon patristic tradition. Christianity is a received faith; we don’t get to make it up. Christianity remains a living faith while it remains rooted in its ancient soil. Jesus said, “Every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52) The church is the custodian of treasures old and new, and so…

I dream of a church that is progressive because the journey is ongoing.

All that needs to be said in the ongoing conversation of Christian theology has not yet been said. In the Upper Room discourse Jesus told his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:12-13) Conservatism alone will not enable the church to come into all the truth. David Bentley Hart points out that the members of the heretical Arian party “were, when all is said and done, the theological conservatives of their time and place; the members of the Nicene party were the daring innovators. The former were traditionalists, and for that reason their language ultimately proved sterile; the latter were theological and metaphysical radicals, and as a consequence their language gave the tradition new and enduring life.”

I dream of a church that is a viable alternative to soulless secularism.

Philosophical secularism is the modern idea that God is irrelevant for the organization of our lives, and that there is nothing ontologically sacred. In secularism, the sacred is merely an artificial construct. But a world without the sacred is a world without a soul. The yearning for the sacred is part of what it means to be human — this yearning can be suppressed, but it cannot be extinguished. The church doesn’t need to fight secularism, but the church does need to be an alternative to secularism. We need churches that are less practical and more sacramental.

I dream of a church where my grandchildren’s grandchildren learn to love and follow Jesus.

I’m playing the long game. I’m not just in this for myself. It’s doubtful that my great-great-grandchildren will know my name (do you know the names of your great-great-grandparents?), but still I want to leave them a gift. So I give my life in service to the church, because the church matters — it’s how we pass on the pearl of great price to future generations.

I dream that maybe we’re still the early church.

Selah. In the Year of Our Lord 9021, we will be regarded as the early church. Can we be content with a caretaker’s role or do we have to be the “Omega Generation?” We need to live with both an anticipation of the imminent return of the Lord and with a suspicion that the Parousia might be many millennia in the future.

I dream that the church of the distant future will kindly forgive our faults, for we too are people of our time.

What are these faults? I’m not sure. That’s the point. It’s hard to know what you don’t know. We aren’t a perfect church. We won’t be a perfect church. We can’t be a perfect church. For now, it will have to be enough to be a church struggling imperfectly to be faithful. And since grace is given to the humble, let us be humble.

I dream of a church in the distant future with technology I can’t imagine, but still practicing sacraments I immediately recognize.

Just as the church of the catacombs could not imagine the technologies we casually employ today, so we cannot imagine the technologies that will be available to the church of the twenty-fifth century. But the church of the catacombs would recognize baptism and Eucharist. These are the sacraments that bind us together across the ages.

These are some of the dreams I dream.


(The artwork is Jacob’s Dream by Marc Chagall, 1966.)