Every time I have wandered around in the borderland and reached summits where I had a panoramic view of the landscape in all directions, I have been forced to ask: Can I exclude any of this? Is not this the world of my faith? Some tell me that I must reject the border zone and return home; others think that I must forget my own Christian faith in order to lead a full life on the far side of the border. This choice is impossible! If faith should demand that I forget the border zone, it would be too narrow. But if I were to cross the border for good and put down my roots in a foreign region, I would be consumed by homesickness. Faith would become rootless.
This is why I sought a larger faith. My travels in the border zone between East and West kindled in me the longing for a faith large enough to encompass all I had seen and experienced both in my homeland and in the borderland, a faith that would lead me through new landscapes, with space enough for life in all its contradictory variety.
A larger faith does not close the borders, but throws them open. A larger faith does not claim that it has God under lock and key in its own world, but sees his tracks everywhere. A larger faith grows out of the profession of faith in the Creator of heaven and earth.
I crossed the border in order to bring God to new worlds--but I discovered that he was already there. And naturally enough! How could he not be present in the world that was his own? It was he who blew the breath of life into the human person's nostrils so that Adam became a living being. How could one fail to perceive his presence when the breath of life became deep and the heart beat strongly? All I could do was to point: There he is! Look! And not least: I could point to the place, the time, and the person where God's own being and work shone out in transfigured splendor, namely Jesus Christ.
I have never understood how some people can use Christ to erect borders. They think that their profession of faith in him means that the circle closes around him, with a clear difference between that which is inside the circle and that which is outside. And yet Jesus broke through borders all his life! He was in places where no one expected him to be! He never let himself be imprisoned in the categories of the pious, but made God present where he really ought not to have been present--if he had been a "pious" God. Jesus kept on surprising me by turning up on the little side-streets, far away from all the paths that led to a church building.
Perhaps we are wrong in the way we conceive the center and the periphery of the circle. Ought not a faith that was truly centered on Christ have the same openness that he displayed? Concentration on this center frees us from the need to define the periphery of the circle; on the contrary, we perceive how the light radiates out from Christ to the uttermost borders of the circle, permeating everything.
A larger faith takes seriously the Bible's affirmation that "everything" was created in Christ, through him, and for him. "Everything" means all that is in the universe, "in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, thrones and dominations, powers and authorities" (Col 1:16). And that which has been created will one day be "gathered together" in him (Eph 1:10). We do not fully understand what this means, and perhaps not even Paul himself understood it, for he uses mysterious words when he praises this mystery. At any rate, his words affirm that nothing in the world--with all its beauty and ugliness, its goodness and evil, its yearning for God and its devilry--is untouched by Christ, and that everything can be transformed and created anew by God's grace. If Christ is involved both in the creation and in the perfecting of all things, it would be a mockery of the divine plan to close the borders and prevent him from working in the world, in those landscapes in which he in his goodness allows us to travel.
My longing for a larger faith was kindled by the divine presence I believed I discerned in the border zone of the East. It might be confusing, chaotic, and unclear, but I never doubted that He was there. I wanted to put a name to his presence and show its true nature. At the same time, the border zone left lasting impressions on my own mind, giving me a larger appreciation for the hidden mystery of his presence.
Gradually, I also realized that the border zone is not just "out there." It exists just as much here at home. The border zone is in our own mind. If we do not shut ourselves up in our faith, we cross borders all the time.
We need a faith that can accommodate human life in all its dimensions. We need a larger faith.
Notto R. Thelle, D.Th., is a professor in the Faculty of Theology, the University of Oslo, Norway. Having studied Buddhism at Otani University in Kyoto, he acted as associate director of the NCC (National Christian Council) Center for the Study of Japanese Religions in Kyoto from 1974 to 1985. He was also a visiting scholar at the center in 1999 and 2000.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2009 issue of Dharma World.
This essay is a translation from the author's 1991 book (in Norwegian) whose title translates as "Who Can Stop the Wind? Travels in the Borderland between East and West."
back to this issue's table of contents