Wednesday, May 06, 2009

OK Church: What's the Diff? Part 2

Some more comments have been added to the Interlude post, but I'm prepared to put my answer out there and hopefully it addresses them somewhat while also providing my basic responses to the original question. I don't have much more time to work on it, but would rather put out an unpolished version and then discuss and clarify than hold off indefinitely until that never-to-come day when it is perfectly put.

So, if you are just joining us, the question Trev asked was as follows. There could be (and
has been) some debate over the presumptions in the question itself, but my goal is to address the main thrust of it.

"One of the biggest criticisms against the church is its claim to have an objective source for morality (God). Yet, we see an organization that seems to follow suit with whatever the rest of the world is doing. The church is constantly evolving and re-examining its moral compass....just like everyone else. So what's the difference? What is Jesus doing within the church that isn't happening elsewhere in society? Is society following the church's example, or is the church following society's example?"

And: "What IS the church?"

The church confesses God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

Its people know they are works in progress. Where they forget this they stand to be corrected. They confess again that it is a reconciling.

Are they different than society? Of course they are. This isn't the group that gathers around the feeling that Lando is their favourite Star Wars character. It is the people that gathers around the belief that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. Wherever they are different it is there: In the content of what they are gathered by and for.

But the question was really about their moral difference. If they have an "objective source for morality" from God why aren't they better across the board than the rest of society? Why should anyone care about them if they are not morally better?

I think CS Lewis was right about this in Mere Christianity. In my view if you are going to look for the moral difference Christ makes you don't get far comparing the behaviour of Christian Jon to that of atheist Matthew. Matthew may have been quite simple born morally superior to Jon: Light years ahead in grace and humility. The question is what difference there is between Christian Jon and un-Christian Jon. This is a comparison one can make, although not perfectly of course. Most Christians can and will speak of the difference Christ has made in their lives.

But I suspect this is exactly the attitude Trev wishes to confront. When church people shift the focus from "God in Christ reconciling the world" to "God in me made better than you". And what we need to continue doing, morally speaking, is ask ourselves what difference Christ has yet to make in our lives.

Is the church different? Morally? Many times probably yes. But not in the sense that they are all made better than everyone else immediately upon entry into the building or the religion. That's just not how it works. God in Christ is still reconciling, not just the church, but the world. The church confesses this and strives for it. That's how it is different.

The church is not different than society because it has an objective static moral code that requires no effort in interpretation or application. Yes you have church folk who make it out to be that way, but if that's the cardboard cut out you want to use to cover the whole church you just aren't trying very hard. The church itself has correctives for such folk.

However, neither is the church the same as society because it has a "moral compass" that is "constantly evolving" and "following suit" with society at every step of the way. Sometimes it does, and some pockets of it are more societally-driven than others, and sometimes that is to varying degrees appropriate. Sometimes, too, societally-driven change is actually inappropriate, according to the church's discernment. Sometimes there is a bit of both.

One example of a time it was good to go with (part of) society was and is in the case of the abolition of slavery in the U.S., although it is not that simple as to say that eradicating slavery was the work of society against the church. It was society in part along with the church in part against society in part and the church in part. Would it have changed without the seeds of Judeo-Christian equality in the society itself?

An example of something the society may arguably be "ahead" on might be the role of women. But even here, would it be where it is without the seeds of Judeo-Christian equality (however slowly they've been born out to their full redemption as of yet)? And can we really call something like societal feminism "ahead" when it also entails the full-scale slaughter of innocent yet-to-be-born children?

An obvious example of an inappropriate going-along-with-society was the church in Germany which supported the National Socialists. But there was also the confessing church in Germany, and another huge part of the church and a huge part of the society around Germany, that begged to differ with that party's values. Would Hitler have been able to do what he did without some perverted biblical interpretations of anti-semitist nationalism? Perhaps not, but I imagine he'd have found some other justification. And there are hugely reasonable grounds for opposing him in Christian theology itself.

To say that the church's "moral compass" is no different than society's is, to me, missing something. Just because it has to think along the way, interpret, wrestle, adapt, and apply, doesn't make it different. It makes it human. But it believes Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made flesh, and it believes the Spirit guides us into truth as we wrestle with the Scriptures together. So I'd say the moral compass is a bit different.

It is indeed constantly "re-examining" its moral compass, Jesus Christ, as testified to in Scripture and in church history and in church-present by the communal work of interpretation and application as led by the Spirit. This is exactly what it is doing and trying to do. But where it is different is that the moral compass is Jesus Christ. And I find it ironic that it gets accused on one hand of just going with whatever conveniently allows it to sleep with society at night, and on the other of not going along with it quickly enough. It is also ironic that it is accused of being flighty, when the one thing that sets it apart is precisely the root from which it grows.

Even in those cases where society seems ahead, the church will have a different motive or goal or slant or style of moral change depending on the degree to which Christ is speaking into the situation through society and then back into society through the church gathered around Him.

We believe God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself. Not human ideas about God, but God revealed in Christ. And he is reconciling; not done yet; active and relevant. And the goal is reconciliation of the world, not just the select, escapist, pietistically superior, rapturable few.

And the goal is full-scale reconciliation to God, not simply some moral improvement in itself. And reconciliation to God of course entails healing of relationships with others, with creation, and also the hope of new creation in Christ yet to come.

I think the church has moral stances that are going to be unpopular. Within it are also approaches to morality that could use refining. But if it can be criticized at any point it is by Christ himself. It is to be criticized wherever it is not more like Christ.

But there are a couple ways to go about that criticism. There are the Pharisees who demand a certain holiness and offer no help or togetherness in getting there. These are the old Pharisees everyone rails against: The legalists so obsessed with personal piety and the rapture. But there are also the new Pharisees who have left the church because it doesn't live up.

But there is a new (old) way of being the church, and that is to love it as Christ loves it, and loves us, with grace, with a commitment to what we should be, with a conviction that we get there by forgiveness and reconciliation and not of ourselves. This is my conviction: That if the church is to be different it is here. Ambassadors of reconciliation.

We can't well do that from our moral haunches and pedestals, but we can do it be continuing to gather at the communion table, not in false peace, but in the commitment to speak TRUTH in LOVE to one another, to listen in return, to have a spirit of forgiveness, and to be the people who in word and deed continue to gather together and then work and speak in the world as if God is, inded, in Christ reconciling the world to himself.


Trev said...

So Jon, if I were to break your answer down into a single statement, this is how it would read:

It is not what the church does that makes it unique; it is the influence, introspection and goals behind their actions.

Does this seem like a fair interpretation?


jon said...

No. What it does is unique a lot of the time too. But it is looking to Christ, not just for morality but the whole shebang. That's the difference. But if you want it in a sentence it is that God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself.

Trev said...

Yes Jon, that is kind of what confused me. I'm not trying to set up an unfair, strawman formula or even pigeon-hole you into a less-than-adequate answer. But I'm trying to read your response (which, lets admit, is a tad bit lengthy) and figure out what it all boils down to.

So if I ask the question:

"What is Jesus doing within the church that isn't happening elsewhere in society?"

Your response would be

"God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself"?

Ultimately Jon, I feel like I'm being told (by others as well) that I'm just not asking the right question to begin with. This seems evasive. It's almost as if my question has been contained and packaged into a box that can best be deconstructed by theology.

For example, you said:

"But the question was really about their moral difference. If they have an "objective source for morality" from God why aren't they better across the board than the rest of society? Why should anyone care about them if they are not morally better."

I never said, nor suggest (at least I certainly didn't intend to) that I expect the church to be morally better. In fact, what I would expect to see is what I'm currently seeing! If I were to see otherwise (something truly unique), I might actually see this "Jesus" guy everyone's talking about (as you may recall from my cheeky comment to Colin).

I didn't ask what Jesus is doing with the church that's BETTER than everyone else, I just asked what's DIFFERENT. Your personal version of my supposed intentions were further demonstrated in this line:

"But I suspect this is exactly the attitude Trev wishes to confront. When church people shift the focus from "God in Christ reconciling the world" to "God in me made better than you".

Jon, you've built an agrument based on a presupposition that is false. Sorry if I'm being harsh here, but I'm frustrated as hell.

I'm not confronting an "attitude". I'm confronting a claim. And yes, an attitude could manifest itself as a by-product of such a claim but that's not where I was trying to take this. I'm just fine with the attitude of the church, because they're just acting like, well...people! It's their claim that they have an "objective source for morality" - NOT the potential conceitedness that sometimes (though not often) comes with such.

Jon, you have thoroughly addressed the (potential) attitude of the church. And I commend you for that. I certainly do not want to make little of your answer/involvement thus far, but this discussion is not over (unless you'd like it to be).

My initial question is challenging the very existence of God and essentially, asking: "where is he and how is the church so sure that he's at their center? (as per the orginal context that spurred on this whole discussion in the first place)"

So far, the only difference I see is not the actions of the church, but rather the motives. And that's cool with me, but (Jon) you've made it evident that you feel there's more.

Even when I regarded the church as "following suit", it was simply me pointing out the church's personal re-working (Joel said this best) of its moral paradigm to better conform to/keep up with society.

Where is God Jon? Will I actually find him in the church, and if so, will it be through his people?

If I'm being thick and just not getting your point Jon, forgive me. I hope I'm not frustraing you with this. But it just doesn't feel like the question has been sufficiently answered - at least not fully.

joel said...

Here is Jon’s answer without ambiguous religious Christianese:

The Church, Jesus and God are doing what they do (which is the tricky way of saying whatever you find in the world which you are wanting to find there, ‘that’ is what the Church, Jesus and God have put there).

It does not matter what exactly you place inside the quotations and this why it is stated so: “God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself”

That can mean whatever it NEEDS to mean. Is it peace? Is it morality? Is it holiness? Is it testing? Is it all these things, some of them, a few of them one or two?

This is what religion is.

Here is the best part now Trev; since the above mentioned description is pejorative that MEANS it cannot equate Christianity, because that would be bad and since we already know this can never happen (or only when humans are involved since God is perfect) we can trust that since God is perfect and good every correct description of Christianity will also be good (not perfect, because our minds cannot accurately attain a perfect understanding).

It’s a simple as this: if you find something wrong with religion, it is either:
A) not really wrong, you just have a bad source or impaired view, or
B) the wrong or bad thing you have found is because people are imperfect

Therefore, there is nothing ever truly wrong with Christianity (or any other religion for that matter) because it is by definition impervious to error, only when caused by humans can religion err.

This is why you will always be told you are asking the wrong questions Trev, because your questions are going somewhere; an honest attempt to judge Christianity.

Religion does not allow this, not in any true sense. You are only allowed to criticize it to build it up, or if you have already agreed not to be ‘dangerous.’

The religions person can never follow Socrates advice: “let us follow the argument wherever it leads” because due to the Noetic aspect of the fall and the Canonization of Scripture as the only relevant text of criticism, religion (Christianity in particular) is perfectly isolated from any true philosophical criticism.

You can dialogue, oh yeah, can you dialogue. Theologians always have something to say on religious criticism, but as for any authentic honest and critical self scrutiny, only the ‘us’ is allowed (and the definition of ‘us’ MEANS never fully being totally critical and therein lies the loop).

jon said...

i don't think i said it was the wrong question, trev. i had things in the question i'd differ with, but i still answered it genuinely and thoughtfully as i could, and so i'm not sure what way forward we have.

i'm sorry trev if i misinterpreted you as saying christianity should be better. i must say that it did seem that you were insinuating that with your tone, but i apologize if i was off. regardless, i don't think that changes my approach though. i addressed it as if the question was how the church is different. it still seems that the question is: If GOd exists shouldn't it be evident in a positive way in the people who claim his moral guidance? I think I addressed that. I certainly think God in Christ is encountered in the church, and can be seen in the lives of his followers, but God is certainly also doubtable from both outside and inside the church, and so i'm not going to pretend to be able to prove his existence beyond doubt either by moral evidence or philosophical evidence or scientific evidence. that doesn't mean i don't care that the faith be reasonable. It is. But provable it is not.

anyway, i thought i was answering your question, and i don't know how we go ahead.

i'm not sure whether to add even more length to this discussion if what i've already offered is at the same time too lengthy and also void of meaningful content.

i sincerely think and believe that the phrase "God in Christ reconciling the world to himself" is so loaded with content that is bursting at the seams. and yet at the end of the day it feels as if christianity is essentially being chalked up to having all the flightiness of a barn swallow's shadow. But that phrase alone, to me, like a two ton rhinoceros it is so loaded with content!

perhaps all i can do then is continue to blog about what that means phrase means to me, and trust that if you so choose to continue to read along, at some point it will at least become clear why that is my answer, and why i find it so uniquely compelling.

before i give up on the present discussion, let me just make one brief attempt to unpack that phrase so it is at least clear what all i feel it alludes to. it does matter what phrase you put between the quotation marks.

"God in Christ"

We have a Creator. There is a transcendent divine and this alone has potentially life-changing meaning for us as people. Of course, we could speculate about that God and be little different than anyone else, and perhaps not get anywher, but what we as Christians are asserting is that the content of what we are to know about God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus, who we believe is God in human flesh, died that he might justly forgive, and was the first in what is to be a grand scale human resurrection ushering in a new creation. By naming him Christ we are not saying he is some mystic sage but is God himself, he is the fulfillment of Israel's hopes (there is a ton of content right there, both for theology and morality) from creation to new creation.

"Reconciling the world to himself"

Again, more content. We are different in that we understand the world not as a random place where we clamor to make something of the randomness, nor as a bad place we're making better by our progressive enlightenment, but as an essentially good place, spoiled, but not abandoned, and in process and in hope of being reconciled to its Creator and to itself, and thus made better.

In this comes the life of Jesus and the events of his death and the significance his closest followers learned to attribute to it. Again, another ton of content both for worldview and for moral discourse. Also plenty of content regarding questions of ultimate justice, love, and hope. Disagree with it or be offended by it, but it is different, and it is not fickle or flighty or void of content, nor is it indiscernible from society around. At least I can't see how it can be called so.

so, not sure what else to say. i'm giving it a real go here. we just may be at loggerheads. if you scour this comment and the post it is attached to and there is nothing there that even hints toward addressing your question, then i regrettably just might not have the answer you're looking for right now.

i suppose i can only hope we'll find a way one day.


Trev said...

Jon, you're an awesome guy and I appreciate the time and effort you have put into all of this. And again, I'm honoured that you would start a post series that is entirely based on my question to begin with.

I won't lie, I do feel a little frustrated and deflated, and as such, do not wish to take this any further (at least for now). However, I will echo your sentiment in agreeing that we can pick this up again in the future, and I will continue to pick up pieces of the puzzle in further posts.

I would also like to reiterate my point of me not wanting to make little of your answer. I really do think you had some rich and meaningful content packed in there that is worth chewing on and I think you're right to not regret/change it. So Jon, please, don't feel like it was all for naught. It certainly means a lot, having people like you around (in an internet kinda' way) to challenge me and spur me on to richer thinking.

Joel: Your insight is worth its weight in gold. Thanks for getting in on this and backing me up on several points. You have a way of articulating your thoughts that I admire.

Matt: You have one of the most unique compositional styles I've come across in online discussions. I love your confidence and honesty.

Colin: Where'd you go?

Colin Toffelmire said...

Sorry guys, I'm very busy at the moment, though I've been trying to read along.

Trev, I appreciate the honest attempt at dialogue as well. I'm glad that you found some value in the discussion. Sorry again that I couldn't participate more, I just can't justify the time (I have a conference paper to write that's already late).

jon said...

Trev: Thanks. Its frustrating for me as well. But hey, that's better than pretending we all see it the same and going about our merry ignorant way. But it might have to stall out for now.

It does occur to me that you might just be looking for concrete examples from Christian lives of the difference Jesus makes. But my hesitancy is that I think this requires personal testimonies of the kind Lewis is talking about in Mere Christianity, comparing oneself with oneself. Certainly there could be general comparisons with others, but they wouldn't amount to proof of God in the church uniquely. You know what I mean? So that was kind of my answer to that. Its not that personal testimonies could not be told, but I steered mostly toward the perspective difference in my explanation. And ultimately I don't agree with church folk who think that the place the church is different is in its holiness. I think it should strive for that, but I would rather have us find our unique identity in our role as people who reconcile in Christ (confessing our shortcomings and seeking forgiveness and mutual improvement by the interpretation together of biblical moral imperatives for our time). That's what I was trying to point toward.

But personal testimonies and examples of the difference Jesus has made or is making could be told. And in my blog I hope mine is coming through, at least somewhat. But I hesitate ever to use personal experience as proof. It can be scrutinized and doubted so easily. Maybe you weren't asking me to give it as such, I don't know, but that's why I steered the way I did.