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.