Saturday, May 02, 2009

OK Church: What's the Diff?

Though a very busy month for me in every regard, strangely enough April was my busiest blogging month of all time (by a long shot: 18 posts to the next closest 12!). That's a bit misleading though. There have been other months where I've blogged way more, it is just that those months I spent most of my time commenting on other's blogs (wink wink nudge nudge Joel and Matthew).

Anyway, for my first post in May I want to come back to something Trev raised in the comments on my Shriners' post in early April. We had a bit of a back and forth at the time and then I moved on (you can get the context here, if you want). But I don't want to ignore challenges that have been raised, at least not on my very own blog, especially when it has been done articulately and respectfully. So here's what Trev said:

"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?"

Good question. I am not sure I have the time to craft a long involved answer or enter into super-lengthy debate, but I do have some thoughts on the matter. However, first I want to put the question out there and see if any of my readers (Christian or otherwise) wish to chime in.

What do you think about Trev's question?

(To be clear (and knowing my readers I probably don't really need to say this), this is not to be an attack on Trev. He raised it, and I want to let the comment stream continue.)

18 comments:

Jordan V said...

This is a really interesting question. I am wondering whether Christians actually claim to have an objective source of morality?

In my experience their is much variance in moral stance. This is exemplified in certain traditions allowing homosexual leadership, women in leadership and so on.

Also, there seems to be a large pool of people in my immediate circles that are in limbo on most moral issues.

We would all agree that pornography and murder are sins, so in that sense I guess we claim objectivity. But other issues like abortion or homosexuality are less "black and white".

It might be my humanities background but I think I would say that instead of one following the other (culture vs. christian)that "we are lost together" - blue rodeo.

The main difference in my own Christian experience is that I believe that there are answers in the person of Jesus. So, I guess I am trying to 'follow' via the Bible, prayer, study of Christian tradition, discussion with trusted leaders and friends etc. I suppose others are 'following' various things to.

So, how does that make my morality different than the wider culture? Well, I probably feel more guilty than they do most of the time.

I'm interested to hear other thoughts...

P.S. my grammar and spelling are bad amd I am younger and less educated... try and take it easy on me.

Colin Toffelmire said...

I've been thinking about the question all morning and I'm really not sure what to say. I guess there are just too many problems with the question for me to try to answer it.

First, I'm not willing to grant that the Church claims "an objective source for morality," nor that God is an object. I'm honestly not even sure what "objective" means in that sentence.

Second, I'm not willing to grant that the Church "seems to follow suit with whatever the rest of the world is doing." Particularly in North America various manifestations of the Christian Church are regularly derided precisely because this is not the case.

Finally tying the question "what is Jesus doing within the church that isn't happening elsewhere in society" totally and inextricably to morality begs the question that Christianity is primarily about morality.

All of this also seems to rest on the idea that we can legitimately construct an idea of ethics or morals apart from, or prior to, some ontological understanding of the universe. Frankly that just seems backwards to me. How can we judge morality apart from some ontology?

I think that all of these problems are more about the failures of the modern Western Church than anything else. In our evangelical fervor we have tried to set up strong boundary markers that would indicate who is in and who is out of the Church. Our general, even systemic, distrust of people disallows simple confession as a litmus test, and so a moral litmus test is required. Thus the Church (I am speaking in gross generalities here) has claimed that it is "morally superior" to the culture. Necessarily people like Trev take issue with this claim.

jon said...

These are great responses so far. (Jordan, I love the line about feeling guilty more. Funny with an edge of truth. Colin, I agree with many of your points).

I hope Trev (when he gets around to seeing this) doesn't mind a certain amount of dismantling of his question. It is certainly part and parcel of a good answer. (And let's all keep in mind that i've torn it from its original context too).

Still, I'll push us all to answer the basic question, which is: What's the difference? What is Jesus doing within the church that isn't happening elsewhere in society??

Trev said...

Wow, thanks Jon for taking time on this, I'm honoured.

I spent about 20 minutes writing a response just to find that I closed the window without getting the word verification right. So I'll get to work on a version 2.0.

Trev said...

Colin Said:

"First, I'm not willing to grant that the Church claims "an objective source for morality," nor that God is an object. I'm honestly not even sure what "objective" means in that sentence"

The definitions I was adhering to for my discourse were as follows:

Morality - conformity to the rules of right conduct; moral or virtuous conduct.

Objective - intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind rather than with thoughts or feelings, as a person or a book.

-dictionary.com

So another way of wording my statement of "objective source for morality" could look something like this:

(The Church is)Conforming to the conductorial virtues of a source that is external to the mind or personal feelings.

Does this come across as a fair statement?

In the case of the Church, such an external source could, in fact, be scripture. But, being as that it is believed to be the physical, written manifestation of the "living word" - I would assume it safe to make the leap to just saying "God".

Colin said:

"Second, I'm not willing to grant that the Church "seems to follow suit with whatever the rest of the world is doing."'

I would have to strongly disagree. Currently the church is dealing with the "issue" of "homosexuals in the church" and "women in leadership". Do you think these dealings would be underway if not for North American society's recent (last couple of decades) re-examination of their moral grounds concering gender equality (i.e. women's rights movement) and minority rights? I suspect not. Hence, "following suit".

Colin said:

"Finally tying the question "what is Jesus doing within the church that isn't happening elsewhere in society" totally and inextricably to morality begs the question that Christianity is primarily about morality."

Well, is it? How else do we see Christ except throught the church? Which brings me back to my initial inquiry: "What is Jesus doing with his "body" that is unique?

Or, to be blunt: What will I experience/accomplish inside the doors of the church that I won't elsewhere?

Colin said:

"All of this also seems to rest on the idea that we can legitimately construct an idea of ethics or morals apart from, or prior to, some ontological understanding of the universe. Frankly that just seems backwards to me. How can we judge morality apart from some ontology?"

Yet, if your scripture is the inerrant work of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent being - than setting the basis of your moral standard beyond ontological metaphysics should come as no difficulty.

If an "unchanging" being who "Is" yesterday, today and forever teaches you moral principles (parables, ten commandments, beatitudes), why look elsewhere? Why ask metaphysical questions when the writing's on the wall?

But, the church IS re-working its moral paradigm. So, again I ask.

What's the diff?

By the way Colin, your last paragraph seems to imply what Christianity is NOT; can you please tell me what it IS? Thank you.

jon said...

This is pretty involved, but the stuff Colin raises do not entail an avoidance of the question, I think they are vital to the beginnings of an answer. It does seem like you are pushing toward something I wouldn't be prepared to give, Trev. Are you saying that the church by reworking its moral paradigm is therefore just like society, and therefore not being true to itself? I think that though your mention of an "objective source for morality" is a distinction from other worldviews, it can be misleading. It seems you are suggesting that Christianity should, to be Christianity, have a fixed set of absolute moral rules, and that by reworking or reassessing its interpretation of morality it betrays itself and just goes along with society. But I believe (and I'm assuming Colin does as well) that Christianity provides what is (in part at least) a situational ethic and also has as its source document a book that, however "objective", is still open to interpretation, and thus requires constant questioning and contextualized application.

I think there is a difference in Christianity, but the fact that it involves a situational ethic and also paradigmatic re-working is not in itself the difference.

Also, it is not that easy to divide society from church in our history in order to say which has always been affecting which. I would say of course the church should be dealing with current issues thrown at it by society. That's exactly what it should do. But just because it is dealing with those questions doesn't mean it is going with society in its approach to them or its end result, at least not across the board. The variance of opinion on some of these issues within the church ought to be expected. There is work to be done in CHristian communities as they respond to the questions and moral dilemmas of our times.

That many shirk that responsibility by referring to a fixed moral "code" that requires no communal effort at interpretation and contextual application is probably the problem with the Western church that Colin alludes to. This is usually present where people and churches have not dealt with postmodern questions sufficiently. You find them in every church.

I realize I'm not answering the question yet either. But I believe there are fundamental presuppositions here that lead to a clearer answer, so I'll hold off for now. This is helpful, but I don't want to bog us down either.

Others?

Colin Toffelmire said...

Trev, thanks for the systematic response, it was helpful. I'll try to respond in kind. I'm not sure how satisfying you'll find what I have to say, but let's give it a go.

First, I'm happy to accept your suggestion that for Christians morality is derived from an external source, and that we call that source God.

Second, on the question of "following suit," what you describe is not what I would call following suit with the culture. Certainly the church is engaged with (at least some of) the same moral and ethical questions as the rest of the culture. But the church (in some manifestations at least) radically disagrees with, and actively challenges many of the prevalent moral and ethical positions of its culture. That ain't "following suit." As for the issue that the church seems to engage the same moral and ethical issues as a given culture at large, I guess all I can say is how else could it be? The only way to disengage from the dominant questions in a culture is to disengage from all culture, a task which I think is utterly impossible. That the church is culturally situated tells us nothing, in my mind, about whether its claims about reality are valid or not. Or at least it tells us no more about the church's claims than the claims of any other identifiable community.

Thirdly, the bit about morality and ontology and the Bible. Here I think I see the problem, or at least a problem with the conversation thus far. First, I wouldn't claim that the Bible is inerrant, at least not as you seem to imply. It's simplistic, for instance, to set the parables of Christ, the Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes alongside one another and suggest that just by reading them you will know precisely what is demanded of a Christian. I can't speak for Christians in general, but when I talk about the Bible being inspired by God I would never mean to suggest that God himself determined every word that would be written, nor that the Scriptures maintain a single, solitary message on many given subjects. The Scriptures as I see them are the evidence of humanity's slow and painful realization about the nature of God, as well as God's cumulative revelation to his creation. I would also reject any brand of theology that suggests that God's self-revelation ended with the writing and canonization of the Bible. Of course the church continues to revisit and debate and struggle with moral issues. It isn't a matter of God's change, but of our change.

To this I imagine you would say again, "the church IS re-working its moral paradigm...what's the diff?" The diff for me is that the Church is (or at least should be) re-working its moral paradigms based on a belief in a God who is self-revelatory, and whose greatest self-revelation occurred, and occurs, in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Honestly I could say much, much more, particularly on the subject of the Bible, but I just don't have the energy right now.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Looks like Jon posted while I was writing (and putting my son to bed) and I didn't read his bit before I wrote mine. That's okay though, I read it now and, as is generally the case, I pretty much agree with everything he said.

Trev said...

Thanks guys, fantastic insight to say the least.

I too, must put my little boy to bed. I've given each of your posts the "once-over" and will respond when I have the time.

But you know how it is, Canucks are playing tonight...priorities eh?

Tony Tanti said...

I didn't get time to read all posts and I will soon but for now let me say a couple things.

Women in leadership is a moral issue? Yikes! I've never thought of it as a moral debate.

I also have never thought the church is constantly reexamining its moral compass, if anything I've long felt that the church (as in the western evangelical church) is stuck clinging to a moral compass from the 50's that was never based on sound theology. Constantly reexamining style yes, morals... I wish.

Trev said...

Jon said:

"Are you saying that the church by reworking its moral paradigm is therefore just like society, and therefore not being true to itself?"

First, I will define "itself" from my subjective perspective: "A group of people fellowshipping regularly in a social club atmosphere."

Working through my lens on this issue, I would say that the church IS being true to itself (as defined above) BECAUSE they're reworking their moral paradigm.

Jon said:

"It seems you are suggesting that Christianity should, to be Christianity, have a fixed set of absolute moral rules..."

It's the best idea I've come up with anyway, it's the most practical way I can think of Jesus revealing himself to others. Again, how am I expected to see/know God except through his people? And if his "people" present themselves as no different than everyone else - where's God and how do you know he's at the center of your community?

Jon said:

"I think there is a difference in Christianity, but the fact that it involves a situational ethic and also paradigmatic re-working is not in itself the difference."

So what then, IS the difference?

Jon said:

"Also, it is not that easy to divide society from church in our history in order to say which has always been affecting which."

Agreed. However, for the sake of my question and this discussion, let's talk about now. Looking for God in history is much like looking for God in scripture - it's highly debatable to the point of necessitating a separate discussion.

Colin said:

"But the church (in some manifestations at least) radically disagrees with, and actively challenges many of the prevalent moral and ethical positions of its culture. That ain't "following suit"".

Colin, we may have to "agree to disagree" on what you and I refer to as "following suit" (perhaps I need to word it better?). But regardless, can you please give me a few examples (prominent ones) of how the church is "radically" NOT following suit?

Colin said:

"The only way to disengage from the dominant questions in a culture is to disengage from all culture, a task which I think is utterly impossible."

I couldn't agree more, it would take, well, a miracle for that to be possible. You would have to be truly set apart by some divine order.

Sorry for the cheekyness, but I'm sure you understand my point, such as it is. I shall conform my "what's the diff" question to better suit this point:

Is God trying to reveal himself through his people, or is he just esoterically disguising himself (and his body) to look like everyone else?

Colin said:

"...I would never mean to suggest that God himself determined every word that would be written, nor that the Scriptures maintain a single, solitary message on many given subjects."

But you have a theology nonetheless, correct? What scriptures and ideas have you chosen to stem your beliefs from? How can you be so sure of Christ?

Colin said:

"The diff for me is that the Church is (or at least should be) re-working its moral paradigms based on a belief in a God who is self-revelatory, and whose greatest self-revelation occurred, and occurs, in the person and work of Jesus Christ."

And how will an outsider such as myself detect this and recognize it if the direct results of this "self-rvelation" look no different than anything else?

It almost sounds to me Colin, that you're suggesting the uniqueness of the church lies in what it SHOULD be. Am I wrong?

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

I've been reading along and enjoying.

I enjoyed very much in the first comment when Jordan V said,

"We would all agree that pornography and murder are sins..."

Really? Pornography? I laughed at that one, 'cos it seemed to me like a curious and unlikely first choice for a "sin" everyone would agree on alongside murder.

But that's neither here nor there. The substance of the question, in Jon's paraphrasing, is "What is Jesus doing within the church that isn't happening elsewhere in society?"

As a Christian-turned-Atheist the unsurprising first part of my answer is to say that the only thing the church is doing differently than the rest of society is moving slower. The church's track record in the West -and I'm speaking in generalities here, obviously- on the major moral questions of the 20th century has been one of embarrassing foot-dragging conservatism. That's my impression at least.

The second part of my answer would be to say that I think there is more to it than that.

Another thing the church (and the equivalent institutions in other religions) are doing that is different from mainstream Western culture, is providing a tangible sense of community, and an appreciation of the value of traditions and rituals.

When it comes to valuing community, tradition, and ritual, I think the church is "ahead" of the rest of society.

Those are my two atheist cents.

Word verification: visors

Tony Tanti said...

I think I've lost the point of the question along the way here. What's the difference between church and society seems to be the main one but I'm not sure if Trev thinks they should be more different or if their similarities discourage him about the state of the church. Or is it something else?

I really think the church should wrestle with the issues (moral and amoral) of the society it is in. What I don't think the church should ever do is think is has some sort of moral compass to show the world. Morality is a great subject for debate and amongst Christians there is a time and place for challenging each other but to me it is a strange view of the bible to think it was written to give us a guide book for life.

What's the diff? Truthfully I think this is the wrong question. Who cares what's different, the church should ask what it's doing to make it's community better. If there is a group of atheists or Sikh's doing something well for the poor, the sick etc... then why not imitate? In some ways the church succeeds here, no one is more charitable than the Christian church if we go by $donations and volunteerism as our guides, (it's not even close) but on the other hand the church could be easily criticized for it's lack of environmental leadership in the world.

Again, I could be missing the point of this discussion. Seems like it got onto objective truth for a bit there and that's a whole other debate. My short input on that one is that I've yet to meet an objective truth, especially by Trev's definition.

frajan said...

The church claims God’s nature as an objective source of morality but it also claims that the world is fallen. Knowing objective morals does not make one able to follow them. The church follows society because Christians are fallen and still lie to each other and themselves, continuing to sin. Jesus Christ came to earth, died on the cross and rose again to recreate relationship with immoral people. A symptom of this relationship should be morality because of the work of the Holy Spirit but morality is not the goal. Relationship is the goal. What Jesus is doing in the church is creating relationship and hope that one day the world and Christians will be made perfect. Christians have the opportunity to display symptoms of redemption in good works but are still influenced by a fallen world. The reason you may not be able to see superior morals in the church might be because the church’s primary cause is proclaiming hope to a fallen world.
Janine

jon said...

Janine's comment contains some important things. I plan to give my answer as a new post in the next day or two, but am more than happy to have some more back and forth over the question itself, or some more proposed answers from others.

In the meantime, a few comments.

Trev: The church is "A group of people fellowshipping regularly in a social club atmosphere"? Really? If that's your definition of the church why are we having this conversation? Certainly some local churches, or some segments of them, will convey this attitude, and some will fail to be more than this, but even they would likely at least claim or percieve themselves to be more than just a social club.

Matthew: I would add that murder itself isn't always an "obvious" sin. Unless one is an extreme pacifist (which I'd like to be but am not) one would justify killing in some circumstances.

Is the church behind society on moral issues? That sort of presupposes that society is ahead, or has better morals. On what basis is that claim made? And how can society and church be so neatly divided? Slavery was condoned and perpetuated by the church, but also opposed by it. Who was the true church then?

And is it a coincidence that nations with a Judeo-Christian heritage of sorts have liberated women sooner than predominantly Muslim or Hindu nations?

Tanti: I see what you are saying, but I do think the question matters. To say that whatever is best for the community, no matter who does it, kind of presupposes we know what is best, or most moral, and seems to set up moral behaviour or just actions as the main thing, the end to which all else is means. But is that all there is to it?

I'm enjoying the input. Thanks all.

Trev said...

Jon said:

"Trev: The church is "A group of people fellowshipping regularly in a social club atmosphere"? Really? If that's your definition of the church why are we having this conversation?"

Because that's the ENTIRE premise of my question/follow-up discussion in a nutshell. Am I way off base with my perspective of what "church" is Jon? Prove me wrong!

So far, my wording (semantics), logic and motives have all been called into question and heavily scrutinized. Yet, my question still remains unanswered. It feels like a big bullet is being dodged right now. All I can do at this point is await an answer, if there is one.

I have tried to make myself as clear and concise as possible. So I will ask one more time, with all previous context and semantical debate aside: "What is Jesus doing within the church that isn't happening elsewhere in society?"

Dustin Resch said...

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

In the community called the Church, God has gathered for himself the firstfruits of the new creation and called them to bear witness to the work he has accomplished in Christ. With brokenness, sickness, weakness, and error, in the Church the name of Jesus is nevertheless proclaimed. The name of Jesus may also be proclaimed in the rest of the world, which sometimes even does a better job than the Church. Yet this does not mitigate the special election of the community called the Church to this its of witness.

So what is going on in the Church? God's election to witness to himself in a particular people. That others may make a better witness at times does not undercut the Church because the Church's reason for being is not found in itself but in the will and work of the electing God.

Thus, question Trevor posed cannot be answered empirically, though that is how it was phrased. Because the Church has its essence/being in the election of God in Christ, Trevor's question can only be answered with reference to the themes of covenant etc.

This is not to say that empirical comments are uncalled for. Trevor is right about that. But they are only "indicators" of faithfulness of the witness to which the Church is called.

My two-bits.

jon said...

I'll answer your question, Trev, but pointing out disagreements over the presumptions or definitions in the question are part and parcel of doing so. (I'm not clear where your motives have been called into question by the way.) Anyway, I do have an answer brewing for you, I just haven't had a chance to sit down and put it out yet. You might not like it, but hey.

For now, I'll say I think Dustin's answer is very good. (But I'll probably try to address some of the empiricals anyway.) I think what makes the church different is that it gathers around Christ. Wherever it is different it is there.

So, a fuller response (from me) is coming, there is no evading the question. I'm kind of enjoying hearing from others though. Its a good exercise for me; I usually just pipe in first.

But let's recap some answers to the final question (debate over the question itself aside) that have been given:

Colin said:

"The diff for me is that the Church is (or at least should be) re-working its moral paradigms based on a belief in a God who is self-revelatory, and whose greatest self-revelation occurred, and occurs, in the person and work of Jesus Christ."Janine said:

"Jesus Christ came to earth, died on the cross and rose again to recreate relationship with immoral people. A symptom of this relationship should be morality because of the work of the Holy Spirit but morality is not the goal. Relationship is the goal. What Jesus is doing in the church is creating relationship and hope that one day the world and Christians will be made perfect. Christians have the opportunity to display symptoms of redemption in good works but are still influenced by a fallen world. The reason you may not be able to see superior morals in the church might be because the church’s primary cause is proclaiming hope to a fallen world."Jordan said:

"The main difference in my own Christian experience is that I believe that there are answers in the person of Jesus. So, I guess I am trying to 'follow' via the Bible, prayer, study of Christian tradition, discussion with trusted leaders and friends etc."Matthew said:

"the only thing the church is doing differently than the rest of society is moving slower. . . . Another thing the church (and the equivalent institutions in other religions) are doing that is different from mainstream Western culture, is providing a tangible sense of community, and an appreciation of the value of traditions and rituals."And Dustin's answer (and my follow up prelim answer) are just above. So there is plenty to chew on here.

Any thoughts on those?

Conversation still open to other answers ...