05 March 2009

can the church be causeless?

At the intersection of thought where socio-cultural ideology meets biblical theology there stands the church. So it is no surprise that when one spends time examining both, there arise interesting questions and odd perspectives on things (for me, probably more interesting from my vantage point; odd from that of others). Nevertheless, in the cultural debate that has been going on for the past few weeks and months I have become willing to examine both society and church with similar lenses and increasing rigor.

The result has been a strong criticism of the social gospel movement, which is flourishing in many aspects of the emerging crowds - though I am not naive enough to equate the two (hence, I am not inherently critiquing one by examining the other). What my observations lend is a connectivity between theology and culture, which still finds many people at a loss to connect as though we could simply segment the two aspects of our world. Yet is remains that theology matters, and will continue to shape every aspect of our interaction with culture - including socio-political dialogue. Within the current state of debate in our culture is the tendency of left-wing folks to work within the parameters of a crisis, a situation or a problem which needs to be fixed. It would be difficult to deny that much of what is happening from liberal camps happens according to this approach. By comparison, much of what the conservatives are talking about is the return to philosophy and principle on which to build social agenda. (At this point I am not concerned with which one of these is true in deed along with word, nor which one is particularly true or effective.)

But what then of the church? The more I interact with the social issues from the church's perspective, and see what others have to say on the matter, the more I see a strong connection between theological thought and socio-political discourse. This can be found in everyone, even those people who deny that their national perspective and political votes have nothing to do with their perspective on the kingdom of God. (More confusing on this point is the denial of the separation of thought in the midst of working to secure a separation of thought.) With all of this in mind I came to the inevitable question, What about the church?

Is it possible for the church to exist without crisis? And for the moment let us work on the question from above the foundational standpoint of 'the world is inherently broken' as our standing crisis. Yes, we all agree that the world is broken - hence, Christianity. But beyond this, is the church founded on moral and philosophical ideals which in turn shape our agenda or is the church an outworking of faith into specific causes which change and arise? One could easily argue that both are present, and that both may be categorized as a response mode. But it would sound counter-intuitive for the church to operate out of a defense mode, since the kingdom of God is built on the ideals of offensive movement.

I believe that it would be quite difficult to remove either aspect from the ongoing work of the church (and do not wish to do so), but think that there still is the need to uncover what truly drives the community of faith. With which of these are we building our churches? It seems that every time the church rallies around a particular social agenda, the fire of the movement inevitably dies along with the need's solution or the inability to foster continued caring over an extended period. In other words, as the cause dies so does the church movement.

So, from my humble perspective, I would believe that while the church does indeed have causes and situations and needs to which it must respond, there needs to be more caution in equating the socio-political arm of the church with its heart. I know that such things are indeed happening in the pew and on the street as the victory of the gospel is cast in terms of victory of a candidate, party or policy. (And N.B., while this was big among the religious right of the fading generation it has become just as big among many emerging perspectives - have eyes to see.) The true mark of the kingdom isn't our ability to fix social problems, it is found rather in changed hearts and transformed lives. While our tendency is to focus our efforts around concepts derived from Jesus' work in social contexts, we must also keep in mind that he was too radical a person to settle for political power or governmental change. And we should be too.

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