This week, Erik Johnson is our guest blogger. Erik lived in Cambridge for 7 years and was a member of the original “UniteBoston Reps” team. Erik is an electrical engineer who recently moved to Oakland CA with his wife Erjona to join a friend’s startup. He is passionate about deep theological conversations, being with friends, hiking, playing rugby and engineering hobby projects. Read his story below to hear how Erik’s experiences inspired him to yearn for greater unity across Christians.
I grew up in a rather homogeneous area of West Michigan, where my family regularly attended an independent Baptist church. I am eternally thankful to this church and my parents for their genuine example of following Jesus and the education I received early on of the Bible and the Christian faith. Generally speaking, my understanding of the Christian faith was pretty narrowly focused on my experience at this church. Though I did occasionally meet in a formal setting with other Christians as a public school student, I didn’t ever give much thought to the various Protestant denominations. With Catholics, however, I was taught that they were more seriously in error in matters of doctrine related to salvation and the pope.
As I began college at MIT, I discovered that the world was much bigger and more complex, with both more magnificent beauty and more twisted evils than I had yet known. Within a couple of weeks, I had somehow or another made friends with many Muslims, in particular one who would become my best friend and roommate for the next 5 years. After about a year or so into college when the excitement of classes and student clubs had waned, I started to consider the reality that the worldview which I grew up with was just one of any number held by my fellow classmates. And, if in fact Christianity is true, what version of Christianity should I be a witness to? Over the following years, I attempted to read about and discuss the big questions of life, and criticisms of Christianity, as I wrestled with the historical and theological Christian claims, especially vis-à-vis the Islamic claims about Jesus.
Throughout these years in college, I was fortunate to have fairly extensive travel experiences where I could worship and be challenged in different churches. This included attending a Pentecostal church in Ghana for three months, then a Catholic Church in India for five weeks, and finally an Anglican Church in Jordan for two months. During various layovers, I managed to attend services at Westminster Abbey, Notre Dame, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul. Finally, during a trip to Jerusalem while I was in Jordan, I was able to experience a representation of nearly every major Christian tradition.
Through all of these experiences and personal study, I began to realize that I had gained a much deeper knowledge of what it meant to follow Jesus, both in the first century context and in other places around the world. Back on campus, I was able to relate with Christians coming from different backgrounds in a deeper way. For example, I spent any Friday afternoons walking over the bridge to St. Clements to pray with a good Catholic friend. Through my experiences and readings of Christian history, it became ever more apparent to me that the Christian tradition was much bigger and richer than I had previously known, with a saddening amount of painful disunity throughout the centuries. Thus, I had to go beyond associating myself as only within a local like-minded Protestant church, and instead intentionally relate to brothers and sisters in Christ from other backgrounds and traditions. As I got to know these other Christians, I felt the pain of division and disunity more strongly, and desired to make a difference to heal these divisions in some way.
At some point on this journey, I connected with Kelly and UniteBoston. I was super excited to hear that I was far from alone in my yearnings for real connections across Christian traditions. UniteBoston’s worship and prayer gathering at an orthodox church during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and the mass at the MIT Catholic chapel with a focus on Christian unity was particularly impactful for me. I vividly remember the adoration time after the mass where we all worshiped together—Jesus’s presence was certainly in the room.
So why Christian unity? I have written a more detailed paper on this question, but I see at least four reasons for why we should want unity. First, Christian unity is God’s desire and the final prayer of Jesus in John 17. Second, St. Paul exhorts and even demands us to be united. Third, our failure to be united in our witness of the good news and new life in Jesus is one of the most significant reasons why people throughout the centuries have rejected the Gospel. When I was reading through the Quran for the first time, I was shocked to see that in Surah 5:14, it states that Allah put enmity and hatred in the hearts of Christians towards each other. Considering the fact that Arabia at the time of Muhammad contained various Christian groups ostracized by the Byzantine Orthodox Church, this perspective fits. The divisions would sadly continue to prove true in the following centuries of Islamic expansion and interaction with Christians, up until even today. Given that Islam teaches that Christianity became corrupted in various ways, I don’t have to be a Christian missiologist to see that our disunity is a significant factor in Muslims being historically resistant to the gospel. Finally, the formation of a united “catholic” people of God from all nations is implicit in the kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurated and that the Jewish prophets looked forward to.
While the road to unity is neither clear nor easy, I think the obvious first step is for more Christians to desire unity. When there is a will, there is a way, especially when that will is motivated by love, and how much more is this true considering Christ’s love and the power of the Spirit. Second, Christians can nurture positive respect for each other. This can be accomplished by purposefully learning more from each other through finding time to serve, worship, study and pray together. We can even try and find ways to support each other financially when one community is particularly in need. We can begin to learn the rich Christian spiritual traditions of one another, and how we have, especially in the last 100 years, come to agree on many, though not all, of our historically divisive issues. Through these relationships, we will better know and love each other, better understand where the real differences lie, and be brought towards the necessary conversion of being more visibly one.
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6)