In this article of my series on postmodernism in Christianity I address the response to change. I want to look at how Christianity today is responding to the inevitable shift toward postmodern thinking that is occurring in the world around it and in noticeable increments from one generation to the next. To every force there is an equal and opposite reaction, and we are definitely seeing the reaction. It is natural to see a strong defensive position taken as a reaction to suggestions of change. How is the Church, how are Christians, responding to these shifting sands, and defending against the forces of change?
Articles so far in this series:
The first defense is of course fundamentalism. You know what this is, and I don't need to spend much time on it. Fundamentalism is more about holding onto power, trying to control others, and creating an elite "in-group" that fights the world outside, than about any of the original good purposes of the group. We see a strong defensive position of fundamentalists in Christianity, and strong political action from this group. Dominionism is the latest manifestation and you can find it all over the blogosphere and public media (here is a wiki article). Basically these guys want to take over the world ! However in my discussions with thinking people I don't normally have to make much of a case against fundamentalism. It's clearly misguided, and you can argue against it on moral and spiritual grounds. If you want to fight it, you can find a strong effort over at the Christian Left, for instance.
However the second defense is more ubiquitous. It is a defense which is prevalent among non-denominational churches, many mainline denominations, and is the most popular position in politics as well (wow, can you say I'm overgeneralizing?). I call this defense, moderatism. More specifically, it is moderate modernism. In other words, it's moderate, but it's still modernism! It's reacting to postmodernism, taking a moderate, but defensible position. In my view, Christianity is retreating to a position it can more easily defend, by removing much of the unnecessary requirements for membership, lowering in importance many of its structural supports, and embracing the postmodern crowd. In doing so, the Church gives the message that "all are welcome here", and strives for the relevance in today's culture. Like I have heard in many debates and messages from such churches, the objective is to define the important truths which we must continue to hold up as infallible, and still define us as Christians, so that we can continue to be the church that God wants us to be. Other topics of doctrine may be subject to opinion and can be glossed over. Even further, various topics of "sin" can be avoided so as not to ostracize those in the group - such as couples that live together outside of marriage, people who are divorced, people who smoke and drink, ... (whatever your list of sins is that you are willing to just let slide). I should also mention that this list of sins is changing. Drinking is "in" now (within moderation) in many Christian circles. Count me "in" on that one. But homosexuality and abortion are definitely NOT okay for these moderates and they will take a strong defensive position against controversial issues that are close to the heart for them. Let's not go into the controversies here.
But, as I said before, moderatism, is STILL modernism. It is a strong and strongly defended belief in the inherent value and God-pleasing purpose of the institution of Christianity. The beams and bricks of the structure are even further reinforced against the onslaught of modern thought, and the defenses are used to call out Christians to be different than the world around them, holy and set apart. The defenses become requirements for membership, calls to "obey God", and a source of pressure and high expectations for members. This moderate defense creates and further propagates the separation of "us" and "them" in the church by defining clear boundaries around the group. And there is the problem - by reinforcing this position, the temptation to hunker down, isolate itself and exclude others is acted upon, creating a more elitist culture among modern Christians. It is harder to belong now. As a result church sizes are decreasing (here are a couple of random articles on this: Are church sizes decreasing, and The Number One Reason). Take a look at what the second author is calling for as response to this decline! "1. Raise the expectations of membership". It is the moderate defense.
The Moderate Wall
In terms of theology, moderatism is a a popular and strongly defended position. Most Christians will say something like "I can be flexible on many things, but HERE IS THE LINE, and I will not cross it". In doing so the dividing lines are drawn between "us" and "them", between right and wrong, between good doctrine and bad doctrine, and so the structure and culture of the modern Church is maintained. The line forms a wall of thought. A moderate wall that defines the Church.
Some time ago I started working on the idea of the Moderate Wall. It seems that progressive ideas in theology are met on every turn by this defensive wall, so I looked into it and considered, "why the wall?" Why aren't people open to discussion. What don't they take a position that we can all agree to disagree and actually discuss the issues? If we could do that, then some people in the crowd would remain more conservative, and some would want to push the boundaries into more progressive ideas (at the expense of old traditions), and there would be a healthy diversity of though and active discussion. But instead, there is this Moderate Wall blocking such diversity. As a result I wrote several articles on it. I want to share with you here a parable -- yes a parable. Or maybe more of a fable, that explains the moderate wall, and what to do about it. I hope you enjoy it. I'll take up the topic further in next blog entry.
The Parable of the Golden Bricks
The Parable of the Golden Bricks (by me)
In the land of Urt there was a kingdom called Kog. The people of Kog were at times kind and gracious, and sought to do right, building their kingdom into a place of peace and wholeness. A place where children could grow up nourished. A place where everyone had their place. But like all people, the people of Kog also struggled in every imaginable way. They were threatened by corruption from within and without. They were shaking and afraid, and their fragile kingdom was on the precipice of collapse.
God came to these folks of Kog, and gave them a gift of golden bricks to properly build their kingdom. Each brick, made of heavenly material that was impregnable, was bestowed with the beauty of God, and carried something of the goodness of God's character. They represented everything good and strong that could be used to build the kingdom of Kog.
The rulers of Kog met to decide what to build with these golden bricks, and how to use them to save their kingdom from collapse. They decided to build a strong tower to show the beauty of the bricks so that they could be seen throughout all of Urt. They formed bricks of rock and clay from the land of Urt, and built them into the base of a mighty tower. The golden bricks were used to finish the tower, taking it to a mighty point high up in the air. This tower became the greatest symbol in Urt of all that is good and strong.
But while the kingdom of Kog did prosper with their new tower, all that was good and beautiful did not. The tower brought power. The rulers of Kog became strong and wealthy. They became hungry for their own power. By control of the rest of the people who worked the land they made themselves more and more rich. By building armies they took control of all of Urt.
But in time, the armies and the workers failed, and the wealthy rulers could not hold on to the power they had longed for. After some time, the mighty tower of Kog was toppled by wars and battles. The golden bricks lay in piles of rubble. The bricks of rock and clay from the land of Urt lay next to them.
After some time had passed, the people rose up to reclaim their kingdom. Seeing the fallacy of their past efforts, they sought to build something that would truly make Kog a place of beauty and peace, rather than a place where leaders could rise up to become tyrants. They decided to build a wall. They circled Kog with a wall made of the bricks of rock and clay, They interspersed the golden bricks to add strength to the wall, and to surround their kingdom with the goodness of God who had provided the bricks. The wall represented all that was good and strong. The wall protected the kingdom, bringing order, and allowed the people inside to find peace and happiness.
The kingdom of Kog prospered again with its new wall. Other people of Urt would visit and marvel at it. Families and communities thrived in Kog. The rulers and government were able to lead the people without resorting to tyranny and control. Kog was a place of freedom and order. The wall became of fortress of strength for the people for many years.
But eventually the wall failed, and the kingdom failed. The wall did not prevent the main two problems that plagued the kingdom of Kog, corruption within and without. Inside the wall, turmoil and conflict led to disputes over how to keep the freedom and order in the kingdom. Outside the wall, other kingdoms rallied from time to time and waged war on Kog. The kingdom was besieged, and plagued from within. Eventually the wall was toppled by wars and battles.
After a long and very dark time, new hope arose. The people of Kog once again rose up to build their kingdom. They found the golden bricks among the rubble with the bricks of rock and clay. They had an idea. Instead of building a tower or a fortress, what would happen to their kingdom if they built the bricks into a symbol of peace instead? Since any tower or fortress was doomed to eventually collapse when attacked by enemies, why not resist the problem at its core - why not create peace instead of enemies? How much more could the people of Kog prosper if they used all the strength and beauty of the golden bricks to try to achieve this? Certainly, what harm could come from it? Certainly, the failed experiences of the tower and the wall showed that something different should be done.
So the people built a bridge out of the golden bricks. The bridge rose over the piles of rubble left from the bricks of rock and clay. The bridge connected the kingdom of Kog to the world outside. The bridge was a symbol of peace as well as strength. It welcomed the people of Urt to visit the kingdom of Kog. And come they did. And they brought all kinds of treasure to Kog and helped build it into the most majestic kingdom the people could have imagined. What's more, the people of Urt invited the people of Kog to come out of their kingdom and visit other kingdoms throughout the land of Urt. When they did, they found something amazing. In many places, they found other symbols of peace, like bridges, roads and welcoming statues, and they were all built out of golden bricks! They realized that the kingdom of Kog had in a way spread to all of Urt, and it was a land of peace.
DiscussionHere I am copying some of the discussion about the parable from the original series...
The Tower of Control
I hope you liked the parable. Like a children's story it leads us to follow the progression in thinking of the characters, through their failures and toward redemption. The first failure is a common one for all of us. When we are given challenges, stresses, and resources to handle them, one way we can react is to grab hold tightly of anything that can give us control. When we respond to need and pain with control and structure, we are trying to apply our own power to overcome the obstacles we face. I can think of many situations in relationships where good intentions to help another person lead to trying to force control on that person. "Here, let me help you. Here, you should do it this way..."
In groups, human tendencies are even more dangerous! The need to control and overcome leads to a need to institutionalize, as a way to set up power over enemies, to fight hardship, and to organize and distribute resources. When we institutionalize worship of God, we replace genuine seeking and spirituality with something that looks like worship, but is a replacement for true relationship. When we institutionalize emulating God's character, we create rules and expectations, that are erroneously connected with being spiritual. We think we need to be correct, pleasing, conforming, even popular, in the expectations of our social, religious system, in order to be right with God.
In the story of Kog, the attempt to control fails. It fails, I suppose, because control creates revolt within and war without. Those that resist the control will most likely topple the tower and declare victory.
The Isolating Wall
The second failure comes from a more reasonable, moderate, attempt to gain control. Instead of forcing everyone to submit to centralized leadership, instead, let's try isolating ourselves from outside influences, shutting out bad things, and basking in the glory of our own view of ourselves. This failure is also a common human reaction. We can retreat, observe, and shore up our defenses, making sure that we protect our own kind. In relationships, we avoid risks, maybe staying to ourselves in order to protect ourselves from harm. In groups, we look for comfort among those that are similar to us, so that we fit it, they fit in, we all fit in. The hope is that this low risk approach will avoid conflicts and protect from harmful influences from outside. We all do it -- in our families, within the walls of our own houses, don't we defend against outside intrusion while protecting those of us within? In our schedules, jobs and associations, don't we group together with like-minded folk where we feel safe and accepted? In this way, we gain control of the chaotic world around us and fill our lives with safe havens. We can relax, we can enjoy, we can relate, and hopefully we can prosper, within these safe confines. But as we all know, minimizing risk can also minimize reward. Our most brilliant moments in life are not these safe ones, but the ones where we found courage, embraced change, and took risks. Isolationism leads to loneliness in the end. It doesn't end well. Risks, courage and change are required for healthy life and relationships.
In groups, isolationism is prone to its own risks. Corruption within can easily take over. A wrong idea, and leader with bad intentions, or a lack of resources can easily drive a group to desparation and possible collapse. Even when things are going well, the limited perspective that we have due to isolation from outsiders can drive us into miserable, selfish complacency. We can come to see tiny problems as giant mountains, while missing the true problems and challenges of the world outside. It looks like bickering, complaining, infighting, power struggles, and basically just driving one another crazy! Meanwhile, inside the walls of isolation, we become less useful, less concerned, less able, and less relevant. The world outside doesn't care about us, in our walls, because we don't care about them. The world is divided into "Us" and "Them".
Eventually, if we are lucky, the wall cannot stand the pressures from inside and out. The isolationism doesn't hold together, and the outside world comes crashing in. The wall crumbles. The safety and comfort is lost. The community collapses. And we are alone once more, in a crowd of people that don't understand us.
The Hope of Peace
Is there another solution? Can we find a secure place to live, with comfort for ourselves, stable social structures, secure cultural idenity, without building a tower of control or a a wall of isolation? The solution must be a way of peace. We must find our identity in a place where we can embrace others with a peaceful posture. What can be built that brings both security and peace? The people of Kog found that this was possible. Peace was the solution. It brought side-effects of security and wealth. It was risky, but it avoided the problems that come from controlling the world around us.
Can we find a peaceful solution to the chaos around us? Can we seek peace in relationships, peace in social settings, and peace in our spirituality? The parable offers hope that peace can be found.
They `R Us
Once again, who are these people of the world outside the wall? What does our doctrine say about them? How does God see them? I will delve into the doctrines that hold up the Moderate Wall and split the world into “Us” and “Them” categories in further chapters. But for now, consider who these people are. In many cases, they are our (literal) brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, children and other relatives. They are our co-workers and friends. They are the people of our towns, cities, countries. In other words, they are “Us”! Any distinction that you can make in people is blurry and filled with exceptions and doubts. Spiritually speaking, the only distinctions between people are the ones that people choose for themselves. People can identify as Christians and can attend a church, so they self-identify as part of the inside group. Or people can identify as atheists and self-identify as part of the outside group. Then there is the ambiguously-identified group of people in the middle that do not make it easy for us to decide where they stand. But can an outsider follow Christ? Can an insider refuse to follow Christ? Can an honest man who doesn’t like church be good, kind, and seek God with all his heart? Can those that question the existence of God (both inside and outside the church) at the same time be pleasing to God? Does God enjoy the presence of people, whether they question or accept? The point is this: when we can no longer create clear definitions of “Us” and “Them”, then the wall separating us crumbles.
When the people on the outside are indistinguishable from those on the inside, then the wall is simply a mechanism for self-identification. It is a construct. It is a club membership card, and nothing more! If we are not different, then we are separate only by choice. We choose this life of isolation, to protect ourselves and our own comfort from the inconveniences of embracing people that are different than us. In other words, we are benefiting from disobeying the law of Christ! We refuse to follow him into the world outside, and we sanction it with our worship of Christ. This is contradictory behavior, founded in wrong beliefs about how we are so special that we are better than someone else. If we are to follow Christ we must abandon the wall that divides us.