There is a constant struggle going on at the heart of the Church, and the heart of each Christian, to know how to respond to events in society and in our personal lives. We consider and delve into ways of approaching current events. We read the newspaper and ethical dilemmas present themselves, we drive to work and see people in need, we reflect upon the policies of our government–local, state and national–and we try to influence them the best we can to reflect the justice we believe our faith demands.
A friend may come to us with a problem, or we may find ourselves in a situation where we find it’s nearly impossible not only to do the right thing but to discern what it is. We need overarching principles to guide our reflections and help us address complexity and confusion.
In considering the different ways Christians are called to exercise our faith in our personal lives and in our public/civic involvement, I’ve found a diagram to be particularly helpful. You should know that I have a particular fondness for triangular diagrams. There are two that I think simplify any discussion of theology or engagement with culture (i.e. missiology). Theologically, I love this diagram of the Trinity. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, the spirit is neither etc… it says a lot in a concise form:
But the diagram I think is helpful in this situation is of more recent origin. I found it in an article entitled “Preaching to Postmodern People.” The diagram explains the way in this the Gospel interacts with the culture and with the Church, and their relationship to one another.
In the diagram, the Gospel is at the top corner of the triangle, and interacts with the culture through the “conversion encounter axis.” This describes the way the gospel can come to challenge some of the fundamental assumptions of a society, and invite conversion (think Paul on the road to Damascus as an example). This demonstrates that, in terms of the broader society, encountering the gospel is something that directly challenges the makeup of society–or at the very least its abuses. On the other hand the Church encounters the Gospel along the “reciprocal relationship axis.” That is, ideally, the church is already aware of the gospel–we should not be surprised by it–and acts out of relationship with and love of God.
One aspect of this is that it is not primarily the responsibility of the Church to convert the culture–the Holy Spirit through the encounter with the Gospel message does that–but the Church must be there to declare the message, and perhaps more importantly, to interpret the message for the culture when the culture experiences the Gospel critique out of context.
The final side of the triangle depicts the Church’s relationship to the culture. This is called the “Missionary dialogue axis.” In our lessons from John’s Gospel (John 14:15-21) and the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:22-31), I believe we see the latter two of these sides in action.
As mentioned, the struggles we experience are both personal and public, because our lives are personal and public. We have to deal with issues in our own lives, and with issues in the broader society. It seems natural to say that one of these is of prior importance than the other. We cannot appropriately deal with problems in our society until we have determined how to begin dealing with and healing problems in our personal lives.
In the selection from the Gospel of John, part of Jesus’ farewell discourse, Jesus tells his disciples that if they –if we–love him, we will keep his commandments. This would be an overwhelming burden for us if it were not for the fact that he highlights in the remainder of the passage. We are mere human beings. We are flawed and sinful. How can we hope to keep Jesus’ commandments. More than that, how can we hope to move beyond legalism, beyond keeping the letter of the law, to love and keeping the spirit of it. If it were up to us, of course, we could not hope. But Jesus promises that we will not be left as orphans; he will send us the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, to remain with us when he has ascended to the Father. But there is more. In ascending to the Father, Jesus takes his humanity with him, and humanity ascends to the right hand of the Father, and so Jesus states things in this wonderfully confusing way. “On that day,” Jesus says, “you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20). This is nothing less than Jesus revealing to his disciples that they–that we–have been taken into the very life of the Trinity. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, with Christ alive in us, we can hope to love one another.
And we can hope to do this because we have been made aware of the fact that we are not orphaned, but children of the living God, having been made in his image and being restored to relationship with him–reconciled–through Jesus Christ. In being made aware of God’s embrace, we become empowered to declare it to others. By the gift of the cross, resurrection and ascension, we become empowered and inspired to share the truth with others, something we would never be able to do effectively on our own.
By extension, if we are able to abide in Christ’s love, and to keep his commandments because we have been made aware of the depth of God’s love and care for us, then this must have ramifications for the way we share the Good News of Christ with others. The lesson from Acts demonstrates this. In Acts 17:22-31 we see Paul engaged in the missionary enterprise, taking the Gospel to the people of Athens.
Paul goes to the public intellectual heart of the city, the Areopagus, which the Romans referred to as Mars Hill. The Areopagus had served many functions in Athens over the years, being first the location where the governing body of the city met, later giving the name to the body itself. By the time of Paul, the Areopagus was a body of intellectuals and philosophers who spent their time debating. Once there, Paul addresses the gathering in a manner we would do well to pay attention to. Rather than condemn the Athenians as idolatrous pagans foolishly worshiping gods of wood, stone and metal, Paul compliments the obvious religiosity and intellectual curiosity of Athenian society.
“Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way,” he says, going on to connect the gospel to their experience by referencing their altar to the Unknown God. It was common in Greek society, with their plethora of deities, to have a temple to cover the rest of your bases. This temple and altar of the Unknown God is such an example. However, in Athenian history, there had been a plague, the end of which was credited to the intervention of the Unknown God. Paul takes this opening and says to the Athenians, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).
In this example, we see Paul doing a very important thing in connecting to something that is good in the society and complimenting it, connecting it with the truth of the gospel. In addition, as with the keeping of commandments in our gospel reading from John, Paul does not expect his message to connect without there being some personal engagement. Just as we can only hope to fulfill the commands of Christ because we have been reconciled to God, knowing now that we are made in the image and restored by Christ, so too will hearers of the gospel only become receptive once they’ve been shown the respect and honor due a creature created in the image of God, no matter how marred the image may have become.
These two things then, become the principals upon which all Christian action follows: recognition that all of us are image-bearers of God, and that all of us are beloved of God. Once we understand this, and act from these principals, we may find that we, as Christians, can come to differing conclusions as to the best course of action in our personal relationships or in our society, but we will at least be able to respect one another and trust that we are operating from the core commitments of respecting the dignity of every human being (as our own Baptismal Covenant puts it).
Augustine once argued (I’m summarizing) that Christians can engage the culture (things like sporting events, plays etc…) because they are good, and all a Christian is doing in participating (within reason) is returning the things of God to God. N.T. Wright expresses a similar sentiment–though expanded–in his writing on the new creation. In a personal sense, sharing the gospel with others can also be seen in this light. As human beings made in the image of God, each person is fundamentally good in so far as they reflect the goodness of God. In bringing others into relationship with Christ, we bring them to the point where that goodness, marred by sin, can be restored and its promise fulfilled. In doing so, we are doing nothing less than returning the things of God to God.