The Problem, Part 1

Caveat Emptor

I’m going to be writing a series of posts on the challenges I see facing the Church in general, and the “Indian church” in North America in particular.

Honestly, this whole blog thing is a big experiment. I’m not sure if this series of posts will be a coherent argument or a jumble of musings. My instinct is to review this post, and qualify and caveat any strong language so as to block off any avenue of criticism, of which I can already see several. But if I did that, my main point would be lost.

And what is the main point? The world, as ever, is screwy. The Church, imperfect as she is, can help. I want to see if we can re-focus on true worship of the Triune God, and thereby participate in God’s Mission of reconciling a broken world back to Himself in Jesus through the Church.

So instead of fiddling around, I’m just going to post. Ok then.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” 

If you walk back and forth between the secular and Christian worlds  (and especially their media), it’s hard to shake a sense of schizophrenia. The secular world tells us that, according to many metrics of wealth, peace, and happiness, there’s never been a better time to be alive. Today’s world has less extreme poverty. Today’s world has less violence. Amazingly, entire diseases have been eradicated. World-changing technologies seem to be advancing at an exponential rate. And really, put this way, what’s not to like?

But. Walk into almost any theologically conservative church (or, God preserve you, read a conservative Christian blog post), and you’ll be convinced the sky is falling. We’ve got gay mayors and a rogue Supreme Court.Our President is making Diwali a national holiday (not really, but that’s beside the point). Europe is under Muslim invasion. Atheist China will soon surpass Christian America in world power. Wade deeper into the conservative Christian conversation, and you’ll see they’re currently debating to what extent they should retreat, and whether liberals will accept their terms of surrender.

To put my cards on the table, I think conservative Christians are a little overwrought. First of all, let’s relax, because like The Dude, the Church abides. Victory has already been won at the Cross, and the witness of the Church is preserved by the Spirit of God, not the strategies of man. Second, a large part of this group’s mourning is for the loss of a certain white ethno-nationalist, politically-dominant, God-and-Country American civil religion that departed in significant ways from authentic Christianity. To crib from another article, that kind of church needs to die too.

That said though, it is legitimate to be concerned in the modern moment, despite secular liberals’ evidence of a better world and despite conservative Christians’ hyperventilation. Leave aside the fact that the international system powering the market-oriented growth lifting billions out of poverty is secured by 1) the grisly threat of mutual annihilation and 2) lightning bolts from the sky killing bad guys and wedding parties in the disordered parts of the world. Let’s forget that prior rounds of globalization devolved into the ruin of world wars. Never mind that even the last financial crisis, ably beaten back by the Federal Reserve and global economic institutions, sparked a toxic wave of immigrant-hatred, class conflict, and political struggle, suggesting even greater social conflict if another crisis is not so ably handled. Leave aside oncoming climate change. (Which, you know. We really shouldn’t.)

Even if you forget all that, Christians are still right to be concerned about the state of the world.

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

The social and economic gains of the last century depend on an international system dominated by democratic and market-oriented nations, multilateral institutions, NGO’s, and multinational corporations. This system is centered on what used to be called “the West” and what used to be called “Western values.” Many smart people believe that these values of individual dignity and human rights are derived from the Enlightenment era, when the church-state conflicts of Britain and continental Europe gave way to the rise of secular Reason.

These smart people are, well, too smart for me to dismiss in a blog post. So instead, let me offer a sketch of a counter-argument. I believe, as argued by David Bentley Hart and Tim Keller, that the decisive turning point for Western history was not the Enlightenment era, but the explosion of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Consequently, much of European (and American!) history is the out-working of Christian logic against exclusivist, tribal social structures.

Whether it operated in a Roman city or a Germanic tribe, the pagan social ethic was based on the pursuit of gain for self and for tribe, thereby privileging the strong over the weak, the masculine over the feminine, and the free over the slave. Against this context came Christians, who instead of pursuing power for self-gain, exercised what power they had for the gain of others, even non-Christians. (If you don’t believe me, read what Julian the Apostate had to say.) The Christian social ethic referred constantly back to Christ, the God-Man who, though he was God, did not think of equality with God as something to be grasped, but instead emptied himself of his glory, taking the form of a slave and dying a criminal’s death on a cross in order to redeem a world that rejected him. Any Christian transformed by the Gospel is transformed into Christ’s likeness, and no longer seeks power for herself, but instead serves others in any capacity available for the glory of God.

Obviously, the unfolding of this logic was slow, halting, and consistently shot through with hypocrisy. But I would argue that there’s a straight line from the Letter to Philemon to the Letter from Birmingham Jail. The logic of Christianity shook societies upside-down as people grew to believe in the reality of equal human dignity, grounded in humanity’s shared imago Dei.

(Yes, I realize the above probably won’t convince non-Christians in the house. Stick around, we’ll revisit this again.)

However, over the last fifty years, Christianity has become regarded as boorish, primitive, and backward–in other words, something “sophisticated” people leave behind. Despite all that, modern society still wants to hang on to the good parts of the Christian social ethic: concern for the weak, equal human dignity, etc. The modern bet is that we can evacuate the Christian social ethic of its Christian content and still retain the rights, freedoms, and equality central to modern society. Modern society, even as it turns away from belief in the Christian God, still wants the Christian social ethic–just without Christ.

Instead, without Christ at the center, the social ethic undergirding modern society transforms into something quite different. Divested of Christ, our individual desire, unconstrained by any unchosen higher moral standard, becomes the animating force for a new social ethic. The purpose of life in modern society is self-actualization: My ability to pursue happiness, as I define it, to the best of my ability. While I can see the appeal, it’s hard for me to see how this new animating idea leads to risking bubonic plague to nurse your neighbor back to health.

Instead, it seems to me that this new animating idea where the “good” of every decision is evaluated by how happy it makes me and how much control I have in making the decision leads to a social ethic where social ties that weigh you down in your pursuit of your bliss can easily be cast off, and where you take full advantage of those social ties that give you a head start over others in achieving your goals. And so we return to the pursuit of power for the sake of self-gain. Basically, without Christ as the reference point, we’ll re-discover a pagan social ethic, but instead of tribalism, it comes in the guise of radical individualism.

It seems to me that the unfolding logic of this new-old social ethic will not deliver equal human dignity, but a competitive struggle where human worth is determined by one’s success in achieving high status. And that’s probably a recipe for increased economic inequality, sexual dysfunction, and loneliness and depression. (Sound familiar?)

The thing is, so many people are unknowingly shaped by this logic that it’s even infecting the church–as seen by the thin, thoroughly privatized, consumer Christianity favored by many in the rising generation who profess Christ. Given the pervasiveness of this new pagan logic in popular culture and schools and colleges, it’s increasingly hard to raise children in robust Christian faith. There’s a reason so many smart Christians are debating how to react to the new cultural landscape.

This changed landscape presents new problems for authentic Christian formation, but also new opportunities for effective Christian mission. And the problem with the Indian church is that none of these challenges are even on its radar. But more on that in the next post.

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