Tuesday, May 29, 2012

St. Louis Presentation

Recently I returned from St. Louis after spending a week working on my Doctor of Ministry program. We had nine program participants, two others who are not in the Faith-Vocation-Culture track but who were sitting in to fulfill various requirements for their degree programs, another who is looking at perhaps participating in the program at some point in the future and then our two instructors Dr. Donald Guthrie and Dr. Steven Garber. We are at the mid-point of our course work and will begin a mini-dissertation project for this fall (I guess we might call it a "practice dissertation"). Well, I was able to present initial thoughts for my mini-project to the co-hort; if you are interested in wading through it, they are in somewhat a crude format, more-or-less personal notes used to present some ideas. As you might guess, the key point of feedback to me was the importance of narrowing the focus of what I will do for my mini-project. Dr. Guthrie told me that it would be important for me to take some time thinking through the questions I'm trying to answer with my eventual dissertation.

First Assumption: Creational structures are the aim of redemption as much as people, in fact what we as God’s creatures hold in common with the rest of Creation is as great if not greater than that which makes us distinct, … from the dust of the earth we were created.

Second Assumption: in the Church, we look for the evidence of fruit in the life of a follower of Christ. We think of Jesus’ teaching here that a tree is known by its fruit.

The Potential Researchable Question: if fruitfulness is something we “expect” of God’s people, then it’s something we should “expect” of human institutions as well, which are also the aim of Christ’s restoration? (Romans 8:18-27, Colossians 1:19, 20)

Key Influences on My Thinking:

* Miroslav Volf in Work in the Spirit getting us to see the connectedness between Creation’s groaning, the Children of God’s groaning and the Spirit’s groaning, … a kind of identification with the concerns of God founded in the identification of God with the travails of His people and with His creation.

* Thinking intentionally about the creative activity of God’s Spirit in Gen. 1:2, bringing shape and form to everything that is, was and will be. Also, reflecting on God’s tender and providential care for His creation in places like Psalm 104:30,31: “When you send your Spirit, they 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-“ Also, think of Jesus teaching us about His providential care over us by referencing first His providential acts of care over His creation (Matt 6):

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?  26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  27 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.  29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

* Also, Wendell Berry in his article “Creation and the Survival of Creation” reflects on how Solomon’s words that even “the heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain Thee,” how the Apostle Paul says to the Athenians that “the God of heaven and earth dwells not in temples made with human hands,” . . . Berry says “a reference to human structures and comprehensions,” that the work of the Spirit is comprehensive and is not limited to either the heavens or the places of human dwelling (Berry is stretching us here to expand our definition of the Spirit’s activity as being broader than only local congregations).

Reflections: the activity of the Spirit of God to restore and redeem is far greater and comprehensive than the human mind can even begin to imagine. Michael Williams said to us last year at this time that “inside every human heart is a Gnostic,” in reference to how we limit God’s work in our lives and the world. In that same vein, I would say that “inside every human heart is a ‘parochialist,’” … we have a small and narrow vision of the reach of Christ in the world. As evangelicals, we seem to have asked questions about individual regeneration and the work of the Spirit there, we’ve talked much about the dwelling of the Spirit in the assembly, as He dwells with His Church, … but have we asked questions about how we might look for the work of the Spirit in human institutions, in “the world”? If we believe that culture-making and the culture-made stuff of the world is actually a part of the redemptive aim of God, could it be reasonable as well to expect to see some visible fruitfulness regarding the work of the Spirit’s redemptive activity in the world, in human institutions (primarily among God’s people, but not limited to His people)?

The lack of evangelical expectation on this point would explain much of why James Davison Hunter finds the influence of the North American Church to be very much pushed to the margins of contemporary culture, with very little cultural capital.

“. . . Christians who do operate in positions of social, cultural, and economic influence are neither operating within dense social networks nor working together coherently with common agendas, not least because they are largely disaffected from the local church. There are those with fairly high levels of social and economic capital but it is not linked with high levels of cultural capital. It is fair to say, then, that in any social and culturally significant way, Christians are absent from the institutions at the center of cultural production. The cultural capital American Christianity has amassed simply cannot be leveraged where it matters most" (To Change the World, p. 90).

“. . . 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).

Summing Up The Problem, … Two Themes:

1)    A Lack of Expectant Hope. Evangelicals don’t pray (or think to pray) with expectant hope that the yeast of the Kingdom could have a leavening effect in the world (think of parable of mustard seed and yeast/dough in Matt. 13)- we’re much more comfortable in the margins (key- margins, not so much as an expression of identifying with the orphan, the widow, etc., … but margins because we’re comfortable in our enclaves Evangelical culture.  JDH concludes that our cultural goods are packaged with language only accessible for other church-goers.

Potential Relief: giving a larger vision of the Scriptural framework of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration, . . . expanding the vision of an evangelical vision of Renewal and Restoration, teaching about a cosmic hope that promises to bring in institutional and structural renewal, along with the redemption of God’s children (Romans 8:18-27).

2)    Lack of Catholicity in the Church. There is very little unity across denominational lines. Jesus said the world would know we’re His by the love we have for one another. In His High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prayed for the Catholicity of the Church:

“I find myself driven back to the simple fact that Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church, that he still prays for it, and that that prayer cannot be forever denied” (Lesslie Newbigin in Unfinished Agenda, p. 250).

First Observation: James Davison Hunter writes that cultural change most often takes place through the gradual process of the leavening of ideas over an extended time period, often through multiple generations, … also with a convergence of the right events at the right time in history (Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers make some similar observations as well), also from Church history think of the events leading to the Reformation, … consider the Wycliffes and Huss’ who did their work almost 100 years before the Luthers and Calvins as well as the timing of the Gutenberg Press, also the stirring discontentment of the people at the time.

Second Observation: JDH talks about how these moments of change come through the collaborative efforts of key players in elite cultural centers of power- that institutions influence cultural change far more so than individuals. If this is true, then the weakness of the Church as an institution (“schisms rent asunder”- I like the great hymn too and find great comfort from the Church’s union with the Godhead three in one; however, to find comfort in the hymn isn’t to be satisfied with its reality: the “is” doesn’t remove the “can” or “will be.”  Rather, as vice-regents / culture-makers / co-reigners / responsible agents we should find ways to participate with the “can” and the “will be” even if fruitfulness in unity is delayed or a long time in coming), … the lack of vision for coherence in our creedal statements, “I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” could also explain in part why in part the Gospel is marginalized in so many parts of our world in which we live, … especially those places where the Church once had strengthen and a kind of cultural standing...

On this point, third observation, the growth to maturity in any movement, let alone the Church of Jesus Christ, could be seeing the movement to places of influence and power as a “stewardship responsibility,” rather than a phenomenon to be “turned down” or refused. Consider Newbigin’s reflections:

“It was necessary for the early church, at crucial moments, to take the heroic path and to accept martyrdom rather than submit to what the vast majority of people took for granted. But it was also right that, when the time came with the conversion of Constantine, the Church should accept the role of sustainer and cherisher of the political order. It is right for churches to be dissenting communities challenging accepted norms and structures. It is right also in other circumstances for the Church to be the church for the nation or the parish, the cherisher and sustainer of the ordinary work of the farmer, the judge, and the soldier” (Gospel in a Pluralist World, p.196).

Potential Relief:

a)           Becoming Students of the World. Learning from “the World”- examples of collaborative work among governments and “secular” agencies, leading to significant collective / cultural impact, … Paul Farmer’s Haiti: After the Earthquake and reflections on 17 years following the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Lance Morgan of the Winnebago Tribe, Winnebago, NE.

b)           Connecting Vocation and Catholicity. Teaching not only Vocation as Calling but also a potential place of strengthening for unity among believers from various traditions. Stott once said, if we are to get the Missio Dei right, we must begin with vocation. I would add to Stott’s comment another side of the “Missio Dei coin,” the Catholicity of the Church- Jesus’ vision for Mission was that it would flow from the Visible Unity of God’s people (think here of His High Priestly Prayer). So we might restate Stott’s tagline in just a bit of a nuanced manner, … “if we are to get the Catholicity of the Church right, we must begin with vocation,” which brings me to my next observation …

c)           Working from the “Outside, In,” … from the City to the Church (Jer. 29:7)- seeing love for the city as a starting point for promoting Catholicity. Example of Lincoln Prayer Summit- unites around two basic foci- 1) love for Christ and 2) love for the City, … very basic confession of faith, … Jim Belcher’s “center-set” focus or Thomas Oden’s “New Ecumenism,” … historical orthodoxy, … the “history of the Holy Spirit” (terms from Oden’s Rebirth of Orthodoxy). Side note from To Change the World here, but where the challenges of unity come is on points of political action- maybe it’s good anyways for the Church to take a season of silence away from the political arena to learn how to be humane again, to reverse ressentiment.

The Unifying Principle: Newbigin’s idea of “the Congregation as the Hermeneutic of the Gospel,” coupled with Davison Hunter’s vision of “Faithful Presence.”

“I have already said that I believe that the major impact of such congregations on the life of society as a whole is through the daily work of the members in their secular vocations and not through the official pronouncements of ecclesiastical bodies. But the developing, nourishing, and sustaining of Christian faith and practice is impossible apart from the life of a believing congregation” (Gospel in a Pluralist Society p. 235).

“In all, the practice of faithful presence generates relationships and institutions that are covenantal. These create space that fosters meaning, purpose, and belonging and by so doing, these relationships and institutions resist an instrumentalization endemic to the modern world that tends to reduce the value of people and the worth of creation to mere utility, . . . To use gifts, resources, and influence in ways that do not translate immediately or perhaps ever into utility may seem extravagant. In our day, such commitment cannot be justified on economic or political grounds for it cannot measure to contemporary standards of efficiency or efficacy. Yet to provide for the physical, aesthetic, intellectual, and social health of the community is a good in its own right and it is part and parcel of the covenant that believers have with the people that God has placed in their lives and the social and physical world in which God has placed them”  (To Change the World, p. 266).

1 comment:

Jake said...

You have a lot of great ideas all vying for attention in that space. A lot to trim down. Perhaps a way of organizing it is in terms of "life in the kingdom" or some such? Life in the kingdom invokes the communal nature of Christian identity and the catholicity of the faith, but it also speaks of the day-to-day nature of that life, which points to vocation.

This is one where I think "Damn, I'd kill to have someone like Chesterton or Lewis around to write a story about "a day in the life of the kingdom" or something like that." Any good presentation on this topic is going to almost have to be narrative-based, I suspect. You might look into reading Ephraim Radner, who I've been told by multiple people is very good on thinking about global church issues from a Protestant perspective.

One other point here, that may tie things together a bit: I think much of the church's inability to imagine itself in a culture-making capacity is due to our failure to understand the church as a political community, by which I mean a community of individuals sharing a common, universalizing belief with a well-defined telos that applies to all of life. If you understand the church as a political community, then you understand that it has specific rituals and norms that are part of life within the polis as well as certain beliefs and values that are essential for membership in the polis.