Church Versus Culture or Church With the Culture?

individualism71315Jason Evans penned a short piece over at his blog making a crucial point clear: the Church is not “special”, some kind of holy elect who can do no wrong. We have much to learn from non-Christians, whether from other religious traditions, secular political movements, or new scientific research. For more politically progressive Christians, this is an obvious point; those of us who are strong advocates for, say, women’s ordination or equality for LGBTQ Christians will be quick to point out that in many ways, progress on these issues resulted, at least in part, from the willingness of Christians to listen to arguments from outside the Church.

Of course, theologically, this could be restated as: the Spirit moves and speaks where it will. The Spirit hopefully speaks in and through the Church, but can just as easily speak elsewhere. And to this pneumatological point one might add an ecclesiological one: the Church is, as Cyprian of Carthage said, a “hospital for sick souls”. The only requirement for membership is recognition of one’s being caught up in sin. We are Christians because we recognize our desperate need to be renewed–not because we already have all the answers.

And there is no doubt that this is a message that needs repeating. We Christians do have a long history of Church-exceptionalism, thinking that only what comes from within our walls could possibly be worth listening to. Jason’s reminder is the kind of thing one might feel more ‘conservative’ Christians need to hear. (It should be pointed out here how vague this term ‘conservative’ is: political, cultural, religious, and fiscal conservatism are, for example, all quite distinct, and one could be conservative in one field and yet not in another. Nonetheless, lacking any more suitable term, I will use this one here, though one should keep in mind its vagueness throughout this piece.) Such Christians are much more likely, for example, to question evolution, forbid their children from listening to secular music, adopt less-compromising attitudes towards Scriptural interpretation, etc. If I am taking Jason’s point correctly, he is simply reminding such Christians of a basic theology of creation: God created us and everything else to be good. No matter how far we and others hae fallen, we should never forget that Truth can arise from anyplace whatsoever. Let’s not forget that it was the Assyrians of Ninevah and not the pious Israelites who heeded Jonah’s warning.

As far as all of this goes, I agree whole-heartedly with Jason’s point. But I also think we have to actually make the same sort of criticism in the opposite direction. Just as more ‘conservative’ Christians need this reminder that Truth may appear outside the boundaries of the Church, I think it should be said that more ‘liberal’ Christians need to be reminded of the ways in which Christian discipleship may demand confrontation with the culture around them. (And again, all the same caveats made above must also be made about this term ‘liberal’.) Just as there are undoubtedly situations in which the Church must be prepared to hear wisdom from non-Christian sources, there are also times in which we must be prepared to hold the line on our values and speak prophetically against problems we see in our culture.

Of course, precisely which issues require which response is itself a controversial matter. The point I want to make here is more formal and structural, rather than to advise compromise or confrontation on any specific issue. Indeed, though, I think it is precisely on structural issues that we Christians perhaps need to be most confrontational.

We humans tend to think that the structure of our thought and language just is what it is, and just reflects what is, more or less exactly and clearly. It’s very hard for us to imagine thinking about things in a completely different way. Examples of this are hard to come by, precisely because of the very issue itself: how does one think about thinking about things differently? One has to use the very structures of thought one wants to reflect on in the very reflection. How does a nearly-blind person inspect her own glasses?

Modern American Christians are, of course, modern and American just as much as they are Christian. We participate in, and are formed by, the cultural, political, social, and economic structures of the broader society. While we should absolutely be prepared to learn hard lessons from that society, we also need to reflect on it critically. Are there assumptions about humanity that our society accepts and promulgates uncritically? Are any of these assumptions at odds with Christian perspectives? I certainly think so. The best example is one that desperately needs more serious discussion, but which is increasingly hard to discuss precisely because it is so often treated without sufficient critical rigor: consumerist individualism.

Now, if your eyes are already rolling–“not another blog thinkpiece about consumerism!”–I can understand. Attacks on consumerism are now commonplace shibboleths in our culture, to the point that they seem drained of all importance. But I think this is precisely because such critiques themselves continue to operate out of the very perspective they seek to criticize, which is one reason I refer to ‘consumerist individualism’ rather than simply consumerism.

Frequently, consumerism is presented as a danger to an authentic individualism: consumerism is bad because, in consumerism, individuals are made to express themselves through the purchase of mass-manufactured items rather than expressing themselves through some other, presumably more legitimate, means. But this dodges the deeper issue, which is: what do we think we are talking about when we talk about individual identity in the first place?

This may seem like an odd question precisely because the idea that particular human beings have a more-or-less set identity–as well as the idea that being able to live that identity without interruption is the definition of a good society–are bedrock, fundamental principles of American political, social, and economic thought. This is well evidenced, I think, by the fact that both self-identified conservatives and liberals are likely to completely agree with the above statements, even if they tend to differ on which elements of identity are most important and on when compromise of self-interest is or is not valid. Individualism is ultimately a subterranean feature not only of our political system, but of our social culture and even our own ideas about our selves: we form an image of ourselves based on the way we are taught to think about ourselves–which, in our culture, is as individuals.

Beginning with the individual as the operative unit of political, social, and economic activity has a massive array of consequences, of which a specific few are I think crucial to note. Firstly, thinking of ourselves in this way first means that we think of society as something that individuals make. This is abundantly clear in Rousseau’s myth of the social contract, and is also clearly in play in the way we think of constitutional forms of government: people come together and agree to certain rules.

And this leads to the second major consequence: the assumption is that “self-interest is the proper goal of all human action“. A just society, from this perspective, is that society that allows individuals to act on their own interest without obstruction or interruption. Of course, compromises can be made on this through legislation of certain rules that everyone, or at least a majority, agree to. But the baseline assumption is that the goal is to allow for maximum individual autonomy, all other things being equal.

Thirdly and finally, what it means to be an individual here is basically to be either a property-owner or at least a potential property-owner. If the individual is defined by autonomy, and never by any social context, then no religion, nationality, ethnicity, family or culture can be defining terms of a particular human being. Since any such attribute is either changeable (e.g. religious conversion) or rendered abstract and meaningless (e.g. the relative unimportance of nationality in the identities of most natural-born US citizens) by choice, it is only the choices one makes relative to property ownership that ultimately really display the identity of the individual. Indeed, each of these other possible identities is viewed as just this–property. One can choose how, and whether, to present one’s ethnic or religious identity, and treat it more like clothing worn for reasons of fashion rather than a context which actually helped to determine the identity of the individual in the first place.

It’s worth noting that most contemporary Westerners, especially in the English-speaking world, seem to take these positions as facts, rather than as cultural interpretations. And when one points out that, for example, Chinese Confucian social theory has a radically different take on human identity, or even that Western Europe had very different views on it before the 17th century, this is generally seen only as evidence of the great progress that has been made. That is, we almost always perceive our own cultural and political structures as obviously true and right, and as either the default for any discussion of politics or anthropology, or at least as the high-water mark of human culture.

Now, at this point, we could descend into any number of discussions–on ethnography, for example, discussing the vast variety of human cultures, or on political ethics, perhaps discussing the virtues of these political and cultural structures. There is material enough for books upon books in this rich vein of possible topics. But I want to get back to the original discussion, on the Church’s response to non-Christian culture, philosophy, and achievements.

I want to suggest that though, as I said above, I strongly agree that we Christians must always be prepared to recognize truth when it is spoken, regardless of the source, we also must be critical of the larger culture which forms both our own communities as well as those outside the Church. And, more specifically, I think we must begin to consistently critique the assumptions of what I have outlined above as consumerist individualism. For one thing, as Christians, we simply cannot accept the claim that the ideal society is one where each individual simply pursues his or her own self-interest. Indeed, we should be clear that such a society would often be little more than an expression of our human sinfulness. Christ teaches us that it is love for others, and not the sating of self-interest, that is the mark of a just society.

And in admitting our sinfulness, we are also admitting that our very identities have been formed by political, social, cultural, and economic forces which manifest the rebellion against God’s love which is the problem Christ came to solve. This means accepting two things that the culture of consumerist individualism treats as heresy: first, we do not have identities which arrived out of the ether, some sacrosanct personality which exists apart from the world. Our personalities are not really ours at all: we are the complex structure(s) that result from our biology, our environment, our parents, our peers, and our educators. The society which we claim ownership of, in fact, actually shaped us into who we are. We define our individual uniqueness over and against the very set of factors which generated that unique identity.

Second, much of what makes us who we are are features that are, well, bad. I am often lazy and judgmental. This really is a part of my identity. But these are not features to be celebrated! Rather, they are marks of the ways in which I, and the world at large, has not developed into what God has created me, and the whole of existence, to be. So long as I hold onto the idea of a sacrosanct “I”, I will be blind to the depth of the ways in which I am not who God has made me to be. Which is to say: for the Christian, our true identity is a goal to be worked towards, not some inner and inherent possession.

All of this is ultimately a long and drawn-out, but I hope not useless, way of saying that the Church needs to be prepared to confront elements of our society that are problematic, elements that work against the mission that Christ sends us forth to. At times, we may find that it is actually us, the Church itself, that is the biggest impediment to Christ’s work. Other times, however, we may find that we must speak a prophetic word to secular thought. And in still other times, we may find that we and secular folks alike share a set of tragic assumptions which prevent us from speaking the Truth and working love. So I agree with Jason that it is important to remember that we Christians have much to learn from others. But I hope we also remember that at times, we may really have a unique and necessary truth to proclaim.

The two positions are not, of course, mutually exclusive, so long as we remember that we live in a complex world. But I think we nonetheless need to remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, the Church’s mission is not just to get by, reproducing its structure generation after generation in human cultures. God has and is acting to renew creation, to complete a work undone by sin. And that means that at our root, the Church must be ready to challenge the structures that keep us blind to the truth and unwilling to love in fullness.


One thought on “Church Versus Culture or Church With the Culture?

  1. Pingback: How vs. Why: Tension in the Means and Ends of the Church | Life's a Lap

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