Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Convictions and Moral Discernment 3

We began this series here discussing critical variables in moral discernment, using an interpretive model with 4 dimensions that I learned from Glen Stassen.  Beginning with the lower right box, the dimension on basic convictions, we have discussed the critical variables here and here. In so doing, we have discussed how differing views of God (or whether God exists) and how God acts in the world are paired with differing views of human nature in shaping our basic moral outlook.  We also discussed two other pairs of critical variables, differences over justification and sanctification (or forgiveness and discipleship) and their relationship, and differences over the nature of Christian love and its relation to justice (variously defined) lead to major differences in ethics.

The final critical variable which Stassen identifies in this dimension of moral discernment is the mission of the church in the world.  That is, if we think the Church’s primary mission is to save souls (one by one) from a world going to hell, then we will pay less attention to movements for social change–and we will see the church primarily as a preaching station.  (The revivalist D.L. Moody gave this as precisely his reason for ignoring most of the major social issues of his day and Billy Graham gave similar answers when asked why he said little about segregation and other evils throughout most of his ministry.) If we have more of a social gospel view, then we expect the church to get actively involved.

There is a rather long range of options in this matter.  One of the pioneers of sociology of religion, E. Troeltsch, in his classic, The Moral Teachings of the Christian Churches, divided the major church/world options into “church,” “sect,” and “mysticism” types.  H. Richard Niebuhr refined this in one of the most influential small theology books of the 20th C., Christ and Culture–dividing  the choices into those who see the church as part of the larger culture (Christ of Culture–primary example in his day was Protestant liberalism); those who see a radical opposition between the church and the world (Christ Against Culture–HRN placed Tertullian, Tolstoy, and most Anabaptist groups here–but few Anabaptists have thought HRN was depicting their stance accurately); those who see the church and the world in a great synthesis (Christ Above Culture–e.g., Medieval Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy during the era of the Czars); those who who have a dualist or Two Kingdoms view (Christ and Culture in Paradox–e.g., Luther;  HRN’s brother, Reinhold); and those who see the church as a pioneer that transforms the surrounding culture (Christ Transforming Culture–e.g., Calvin,;F.D. Maurice; HRN’s own view).

HRN’s classic has been highly criticized, especially by those whom  he labelled as “against culture.” I would say that all Christians participate in their  wider cultures selectively.  For example, even in societies in which prostitution is legal, no one expects there to be Christian brothel owners.  Those Christians who object to all use of alcohol may or may not want alcohol consumption to be illegal, but they certainly would find the idea of Christian  bartenders to be absurd.  Likewise, those of us who are Christian pacifists, object to Christians joining the military and some of us obect to Christians in police forces.  But this does not mean we “withdraw from” the culture or don’t wish to transform it or are blanketly “against culture.” 

In the wake of HR Niebuhr, several books have taken up the question anew.  I recommend especially the following:

Authentic Transformation:  A New Vision of Christ and Culture by Glen H. Stassen, Diane M. Yeager and John Howard Yoder.

Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective by Craig A. Carter.

The Transformation of Culture:  Christian Social Ethics After H. Richard Niebuhr  by Charles A. Scriven.

Artists, Citizens, and Philosophers:  Seeking the Peace of the City–An Anabaptist Theology of Culture by Duane K. Friesen.  This gem needs to be more widely discovered. In fact, I find this to be one of the most overlooked and neglected Christian theologies of culture around. I beg you, read Friesen closely.

I’d also like to recommend the following books on the church as very helpful  on this issue:

Avery Dulles, Models of the Church.

Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament.

Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind.

Frederick Herzog, Justice Church

Letty Russell, Church in the Round.

Juergen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit.

Leonardo Boff, Ecclesiogenesis:  The Base Communities Re-invent the Church.

Darryl Trimiew, Voices of the Silenced:  The Responsible Self in Marginalized Communities.

Others could be added.

Now, just as with the other critical variables, The mission of the church in the world is a basic conviction of Christians.  But there is usually an analogue in other religions or non-religious moral systems which plays a similar role in moral discernment.  Think: what institution does this moral or religious system see as the primary locus redemptive activity in the world.  For Judaism, this role is not played by the synagogue, but by the people Israel (not the modern nation-state of Israel) scattered among the nations, fulfilling the role of the remnant called to seek Tikkun Olam “to heal the earth.”  Similarly, Islam is not mosque-centered in the same way that Christianity is church-centered, but they would have similar debates as to the role of Islamic leaders vs. laity, of the role of an Islamic state (and whether such is possible or desirable) of Islamic courts (whether or not these have legal standing), etc.

An orthodox Marxist would see the revolutionary vanguard as playing this key salvific role.  A fascist would see the state as salvific and so, in lesser form, do all nationalists.  Anarchists and radical  forms of personalism see individual moral action alone as valuable.  Maybe some moral  systems would see the locus of redemptive activity in the Labor movement or (vice versa) in private enterprise.

So, whatever institution is seen as the main human agent of redemptive activity in the world is the analogue for this critical variable concerning the mission of the church in the world.  And differences over what kind of actions said institution should take, what kind are or are not legitimate, etc. correspond to the kinds of arguments we see Christians have concerning the relationship of the church and the world.

P.S.  With this we are done with the dimension of Basic convictions or Ground of Meaning Beliefs in Stassen’s model of understanding the  complexities of moral discernment. (We will see that this model helps us see why people who seem equally logical can come to very different moral conclusions on a number of issues. ) If I, the lowly student, were to modify this model any, I would add the role of eschatology or how one sees the future or the END–either personal end (my life, afterlife, etc.) or the end of ALL.  Glen Stassen believes this is contained in his question about difference in how God works in the world.  But I have come to see that different outlooks on eschatology lead to such radically different outlooks on personal and moral ethics, that I would add this as a separate critical variable. (I’ll have to do an eschatology and ethics series here one day.)  Again, there are non-Christian parallels.  Orthodox Marxism has an eschatology: the fervently held belief in the eventual collapse of capitalism, triumph of communism, and withering away of the state.   Further examples could be multiplied.

When this series continues, we turn from the dimension on basic convictions to that of “loyalties and interests” (and passions, affections, virtues).

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March 15, 2010 - Posted by | blog series, ecclesiology, ethics, moral discernment

1 Comment »

  1. Still so far so good, for me. I do think eschatology deserves its own section, though it might be paired with the mission of the church as in your other pairs. (Maybe that’s what you intended.) Different ways of framing the church’s mission certainly root themselves in particular tellings of how the story will end.

    What I’m appreciating most about this series, for what it’s worth, is its teachability. I will definitely teach this in our local church, whether as its own class or at the beginning of any number of classes dealing with ethical issues.

    Comment by Michael DeFazio | March 16, 2010 | Reply


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