Saturday, November 24, 2012

Being Well-Rounded and Getting Coffee

You can overhear some of the most interesting conversations while standing in line for coffee.  We missed a some friends and I decided to get the coffee anyway, and while I was in line I heard a couple of people over my shoulder talking about having faith versus being a ‘well-rounded’ person.  The fella’s concern was about limiting himself as a person if all he did was have faith in Christianity.  The implication seemed to be that there was more to life – specifically his ‘reason’ – that could not be captured by faith alone.

I have a couple of thoughts about this relationship between faith and reason that seems to confuse and even frustrate a lot of people.

First of all, is there a genuine conflict between faith and reason, or more colloquially, between having faith and using your mind?  The right kind of faith is never opposed to reason or the use of your intellectual faculties.  How would you answer this question – what kind of person would you trust with your life?  You would probably tell me they would have to be someone reliable, someone you know and know to be trustworthy, and someone you believe will do what they say they will do in the future (especially at a moment of crisis).  And this answer is entirely reasonable.  You have based your faith (the same Greek word for ‘trust’ in the Christian Bible) in the right person on good reasons. 

So it is with faith in Christ.  The Christian has good reasons to believe in the existence of God, his good and powerful character, and the belief that he will keep his word in the future.  There is nothing unreasonable in that kind of biblical faith.

Secondly, Christian faith, rightly exercised, excites the life of the mind and intellect.  Though large segments of the Christian church in the last century have demeaned the life of the mind, for two thousand years many of the great figures in Western history (and not a few around the globe) have advanced civilization because of the love for Christ.  Rightly understood there is no conflict between the use of your capacity of reason and your faith in Christ, and through the lens of history, the two have been necessarily connected.  In fact, it would be reasonable for the orthodox Christian to ask another who has left behind the exercise of their rational capacities what is wrong with them.

There is no good reason to believe the popular point of view that religious faith, specifically Christian faith, is for the young or weak mind and science and reason are for the advanced and mature.  This has always been and continues to be a false dichotomy.  And the Christian should live and think in such a way as to demonstrate that.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Culture, Sex, and Foreign Affairs

I have one question and two answers: Why do we suddenly know so much about a sex scandal and almost nothing at all about the foreign policy disasters of Benghazi and Fast and Furious?

It is a provocative question, but I do think there are (at least) two fairly clear and simple answers which help us understand some of the culture shift around us.  First of all we are a sex-obsessed culture.  Sex scandals make more sense to us than the complexities of foreign policy.  We watch these kinds of tawdry affairs unfold in fiction and 'reality' TV every day of our lives, so we easily and quickly grasp who did what to whom.  In addition, there is not much difference between what is called the Mainstream Media and TV entertainment.  They are two different heads of the same creature.  The MSM has a cultural point of view to promote and a juicy sex scandal involving high ranking military personnel fits right in.  On the other hand it takes time and intellectual effort to reflect upon and absorb the details of who was in Lybia, what they were doing, what kind of help they asked for and were denied, who was involved in the attacks, and who bears responsibility.  It only takes a couple of brain cells to imagine an affair.

The second answer is that our prevailing philosophy of foreign policy, both in the current administration and in pop culture, is cultural relativism.  Cultural relativism is a horrible basis for a foreign policy, but it is where we are nonetheless.  For possibly two generations now the predominant educational point of view on other cultures has been officially labeled "multiculturalism" but is in effect a raw and reactionary belief that no culture is morally better or worse than another.  In fact, the only moral transgression this pop foreign policy recognizes is the denigration another culture.  As a result, our administration is loath to call murderous aggression what it is, and our culture would violently revolt if it did.  In the place of genuine moral reflection and even outrage, we have the pablum of pop culture and cultural relativism.

The sex scandal is terrible news for a lot of people, especially for the family directly involved.  Adultery destroys families, friendships, and trust and should never be taken lightly.  But the foreign affair bungles in the last few months have cost lives, require public deceit, are morally deplorable, and are (most likely) impeachable offenses.  Nevertheless, it seems we would rather suck on the lollipop of an affair than tear into the red meat of genuine public offenses.

Friday, November 09, 2012

The Call of Discipleship

A necessary reality to being a genuine disciple of Christ is recognizing the call it places upon your life.  When Jesus found the soon-to-be disciples along the Sea of Galilee, he called them to become fishers of men.  When John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus questions he told them to come and spend some time with him.  When Jesus ran across Matthew, he called him away from the life of a tax collector.  And on the story goes.  The call of the disciple is a call away from and toward: away from a life antithetical to the way of Christ and toward a way of life transformed into the image of the Son of God.

Christ went and found disciples and called them to be with him.  In the case of Mark’s story, they were average, probably young, laborers going about their task.  Christ found them in the midst of their family’s work, called them and changed everything about their lives and ours.  In the stories in John, Jesus took interested people and drew them into life with him.  For others, like Nathaniel, Jesus answered questions – even skepticism – and brought them into his power and kingdom.  In every case people became disciples because they left what used to be and became intimately aware of Christ.

But we need to be careful not to assume that discipleship is a call away from ‘normal’ life and a change of vocation into full-time ministry.  Christ calls us all, he demands a change of life from us all, and provides the power for that change for all of us.  The critical factor is not necessarily the change of job or vocation, but of life.  Following Christ changes our priorities and outlook on everything and it might change what we do for a living.  It will change how we do what we do and how we relate to everyone and everything around us, but it just might leave us in our job.

The disciple who remains in their vocation but whose priorities and perspectives are changed by Christ has answered the call. The disciple who leaves everything behind, yet whose priorities and perspectives remain unchanged, has not answered the call.  

So the significant question for the disciple may not be exactly, “what do I do now?” as much as it is, “how do I do it now?”  Christ’s claim on your life is complete and he will in all likelihood leave you in the place in life where he found you, so now the way you do everything changes.

In fact, Mark’s story of the calling of the disciples is instructive at this point.  They were working.  They were tending nets, preparing for the day’s catch, and probably reeked of fish and lake water.  Jesus did not hunt down the most pious among them or the ones who were already most of the way toward moral and spiritual perfection.  He sought the right people, who were average people, and changed everything.

Jesus did not look for what the world calls excellence when he called any of the disciples, but his call turns into excellence.  So it is with us.  We are not called because we are already the cream of the crop, but after the call there is an almost severe expectation – the work of Christ in you is a work of totality.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ bids a man, he bids him come and die.”  And while the call of discipleship is a claim on your moment of death, it is also a claim on every breath between now and then.  Many a preacher has said that there is only one thing you do not say to your Lord, “No.”  So, the reasoning goes, if you have told Christ “no” then he is not, in effect, your Lord.  Something else is.

A sloppy and half-hearted disciple is one who has not come in contact with Jesus Christ.  They fit into a stale rhythm of church attendance or a cold routine of some prayer or simple observance, but their life lacks the fire of dedication and transformation.

A disciple rigorously devoted to their vocation and pursuits, but who languishes in their pursuit of Christ has misunderstood the beauty and truth there is in Him.  They are busy trying to find their fulfillment in other things, putting them ahead of the mind of Christ, thus misusing and misunderstanding both the God-given gifts of the world and the Giver himself.

Excellence is one of the missing ingredients in discipleship among American Christians today.  Maybe we have grown a little soft, maybe we have grown sloppy in the way we think about Christ and the faith, maybe we have had too much spoon-fed to us for too long. Maybe we simply have not grown into adulthood mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.  Whatever the cause, we simply are not, as a whole, excellent for Christ.  The church and the Christian family need to be places where the greatness and grace of God are on constant display.  Our God is Lord over all the spheres of life, but can we articulate the wisdom of God at all in any of them?  Is the church the center of cultural greatness and beauty in our communities?  Is the church a place where people are enamored of a Creator God and understand the truths of science?  Is the Christian family the house on the block where things simply are different by the grace of God?  The evidence of the majority of the Christian church seems to be on the side of mediocrity right now.  That has to change.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The American Church's Task

I believe the election of November, 2012 to be evidence of a deep cultural shift.  It has been happening in different ways for a long time, and many people have written, remarked, and even warned about it.  And while some may reasonably call the election itself a cultural shift for us, it is most certainly evidence of the shifts that have been taking place for a while now.

Demographers, sociologists, Christian philosophers, and many theologians have remarked on how radically different the church’s culture has become, and how the connections between an orthodox church culture and the non-church culture have either disappeared or changed in fundamental ways.  To take one well-known example, the work of Christian Smith and the National Study of Youth and Religion uncovered a remarkable shift among American and evangelical teens in which they no longer believed a version of their parent’s Christian faith. Their spiritual beliefs were different enough to be classified by the research team as a different religion altogether.  His now famous “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” is the title he and his researchers gave to this new form of religious belief.

I bring this up here to highlight the simple fact that these are teens who have grown up in evangelical churches to evangelical parents and who no longer hold to the orthodox Christian faith.  What they (and so many others) believe in has been shaped more by the prevailing winds in education and culture around them than by the historic Christian faith.

This should be the kind of finding that rattles churches a bit, and add to it the numerous studies about the cultural and generational shifts taking place in younger generations, and we are lead to a conclusion.

The Church can no longer rest on its laurels.  We can no longer depend on cultural structures or commonly held morality to support an orthodox Christian view of the world.  We cannot assume that people in churches understand the core of their doctrine or the practical outworking of their faith.  We cannot hope that public structures (formal and informal) lend even tacit support to the place of church and the Christian faith in the public square.  Those structures may still exist in some places among some people, but the Church in America will make a serious error in simply assuming they are there as they always have been.

What we need to do as a result is twofold: relearn how to present the Christian faith to our culture and live as people genuinely transformed by Christ.  As Christians in time past have put it – we need to out-think and out-live the world for Christ.

To that end I want to propose a few places where the church (not just the Christian academy) needs to step up and do some serious work.

By this I don’t mean the generic sense of all Christians being followers of Jesus Christ.  That is obviously true, but as evidenced by study after study and anecdote after anecdote this affirmation alone is not doing the trick.  The church needs to regain a sense of the priority of discipleship, the absolute lordship of Christ, and a hatred for the idolatries of this world.  Christians need to be told by Christ how to be Christians, not sitcoms, newscasts, pundits, or political parties.

The church has expected (maybe with good reason) that the culture would value industriousness, thus supporting the Christian doctrine of work, but that is simply no longer true.  We need to make a stronger and wiser case for a theology of work that emphasizes God’s design for flourishing human beings who work with the gifts God has given them to enrich their culture, work for His Kingdom, support their family, loved ones, and those around them in need.

Compassion/Social Justice
Welfare is not compassion.  Food stamps are not compassion.  The Nanny State is rightly called this because it creates a surrogate for both parenting and labor.  Traveling down a road of more and more entitlements that last longer and longer and which cover more and more people militates against the good of the human soul and family and a Christian simply cannot support such a system and at the same time hope for the best in families and individuals.

Marriage and Family
The belief that marriage is the life-long union between a man and a woman is one of the areas where recently we see the most cultural change.  It has been the case that the church could rely on public opinion to protect that definition, but that is eroding quickly.  Thus the church needs to relearn why it believes these things and why God’s design for families is good for husbands, wives, kids, and culture. And then we need to be bold and winsome enough to argue it.

How many in the church (how many leaders in the church) can articulate a theology of education?  Do we understand the warp and woof of Wisdom Literature and its emphases on maturation and the value of knowledge?  Do we have a good grasp on a child as a whole human being and as someone who needs guidance and formation in a myriad of ways?  At the very least, Christian families should be given a chance to understand education through the lens of Scripture instead of being given a couple of pre-packaged secular options.