My first potential researchable question (that may or not be my dissertation topic) is on the role of God's redemptive aim to redeem not only human hearts but also human institutions. First, I would like for us to consider Romans 8:18-27:
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
I'd like for us to consider the identification "creation" has with the "children of God" in the passage. I've been intentional to underline the word "groan" and "groaning" in verses 22 and 23 respectively. BOTH groan deeply. Also, both are described here as having a kind of longing. Creation personified "groans" in this place of "waiting in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed" (v. 19). The children of God also groan awaiting the final restoration of our bodies, our full adoption as sons when what is positionally true of us now (Romans 8:16,17), will be entirely true as well in the new heavens and the new earth (v. 23).
What is more, what is the Gracious Spirit doing for us? Identifying with us in our weakness by interceding for us with "groans" (v. 26). At the risk of sounding glib, what the Spirit is doing for us is "feeling our pain." Whose pain? Our pain, not only the pain of God's children but also everything that is fallen about the created order, creational structures if you will. Of course at the core of what we might define as creational structures are: work, marriage and family as outlined in the first couple chapters of the Bible. As the first man and woman came together in marriage to be "fruitful and multiply," they in turn were given the task of multiplying, filling the earth and taking dominion over it (Gen. 1:28): at the most basic level, they did so by working the Garden (Gen. 2:15), the woman being created to come alongside the man (created from his side, the rib- Gen. 2:22). Together as complementary parts, being one, they began taking the raw materials of the earth to form and shape them in a way that would reflect the rule and dominion of God the King. This was the essence of "image-bearing" and "taking dominion," multiplying the just and beautiful rule of God through the world by engaging marriage and family, also by creating, in essence making beautiful and just culture for the sake of the King.
So the work of the Spirit who works in concert with the work of the Father and the Son is participating on behalf of God's children and also on behalf of all of creation. As the Spirit begins to work, God's people are regenerated, sanctified and renewed but also so are human institutions. Consider the words of the Psalmist who says, "When you send your Spirit, they (creational things) are created, and you renew the face of the earth. May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works" (Psalm 104:30,31). Also, consider how the Sovereign Spirit hovered over creation, participating within the Triune Godhead bringing all things into existence (Gen. 1:2).
So if my researchable question for now is on the role of God's redemptive aim to redeem not only human hearts but also human institutions, then I suppose my question distilled at its essence is "where's the fruit?" In a nutshell, the line of thinking goes something like this, if I expect fruitfulness at some point of the journey of an individual Christian who has received the redemption of Christ, shouldn't I also expect institutional fruitfulness as well in the Church as well as in broader creational structures, i.e. human institutions?
Secondly, if I go with James Davison Hunter's basic contention that Christianity in America is both marginalized as well as weak culture, then we have a question to ask ourselves:
. . . even the most optimistic assessment would lead one to conclude that Christianity in America is not only marginalized as a culture but it is also a very weak culture. For all of the vitality and all the good intention among Christian believers, the whole (in terms of its influence in the larger political economy of cultural production) is significantly less than the sum of its parts. And thus the idea that American Christianity could influence the larger culture in ways that are healthy and humane is, for the time being, doubtful" (To Change the World, p. 92).
The question is this, why is there less than visible fruitfulness in our human institutions if we would expect no less in the lives of followers of Jesus Christ? Now, a distinction must be made here, for fear that Davison Hunter's point becomes misconstrued. Often when I've talked to others about Davison Hunter's ideas that Christian influence is absent from centers of cultural production and power, the push-back I will often get is that Christians shouldn't seek halls of power nor expect to achieve places of status, etc. After all, look at the early Christians who spent most of their time disenfranchised, persecuted, pushed out to the margins, harassed, beaten, stoned, destitute and mistreated (Hebrews 11:38). So the clarification is this: Davison Hunter is not arguing for God's people to "reach" for power in high places and in elite institutions, rather he is arguing for God's people to be "faithfully present" in such places. Here we might think of the parable of the mustard seed in Matt. 13:31ff. that describes the Kingdom of Heaven as being like a mustard seed that starts small but grows into a large tree with many branches that birds can perch in. It's not so much the reach for power so much as the good work of prayer and investment that go into being desirous of seeing God's people flourish in such places. After all, isn't it Christlike people who have a servant-mindset and a healthy understanding of power that we want in the world's most powerful places? Isn't that a vision of the realization of the Kingdom where even the greatest among us choose to become the least?
Thirdly, another thread that must be pulled out of this "researchable question" of relative fruitlessness of American Christian strength among American institutions is the relative weakness of the American Church as an institution itself. Perhaps the reason for this observation is all too obvious- the American Church is divided among many denominations and movements with very little in terms of institutional collaboration, strength, resourcing and togetherness. In a word, perhaps the reason Christians are broadly scattered across our centers of cultural production, without a significant amount of cultural capital, is in large part because Christ's own institution, the Church, isn't particularly strong itself. At its most basic level, didn't Jesus Himself say that the world would know we're His disciples by the love we have for one another (John 13:35)? Again, before leveling an accusation at this point that Christians are not to seek worldly recognition and affirmation, I push back in this way- isn't it true that Jesus told His disciples to "let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16)? Christianity isn't primarily a private affair, rather as Lesslie Newbigin has said, the Gospel is "public truth."
So there is an initial stab at tackling a researchable question that may or may not wind up being my dissertation topic. Thanks for listening!