by the Reverend Andrew Sempell, President, Anglicans Together
Ora et labora
Closed Minds and the Failure of Mission
The mission of the church in the Western world is in confusion and disorder. Reflecting the malaise of Western politics, factions within the church are fighting for control of a waning institution, now disregarded by a rising generation that see it as corrupt and self-interested. Mission seems to have become an activity more focussed on power, control and status rather than the exercise of transparency, inclusion and grace. Religious tribalism, obscurantism and legalism seem to have grown in recent years while at the same time many people have walked away from the church in despair. These are challenging times.
God is dead
For many, religion in the West has been summed up in one phrase: 'God is dead'. This concept comes from the works of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who in 1882 wrote:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?—Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125
This is not a triumphal shout nor is it a gloating taunt from a swaggering victor. Instead, it is a melancholy recognition of a death (indeed, an expression of grief) by a character called Madman who is searching for God and finally learns of his demise. In these words, Nietzsche acknowledges the shift of the modern soul from its search for meaning through a sacred world-view to a secular one.
Some theologians have seen this as the recognition of a turning point away from a focus on transcendence, providence and mystery to a faith in the rational, material and mundane. Indeed, it could be argued that the twentieth century turmoil of two world wars, the Holocaust, the Stalinist and Maoist purges and the Great Depression confirmed the consequences of God's death and the nihilism that followed. In this way, Nietzsche may be understood as a prophet—as one who saw too much.
Modern thinking has moved to a more rationalist explanation of all things. When coupled with deconstructionism (a philosophical critique that questions assumptions about certainty, identity and truth), it has challenged the nature of meaning and introduced the idea of relative truth (a truth that is culturally dependent and changes between individuals and circumstances). It has also opened the possibility of there being no truth at all.
Of course, the church has been caught up in this secular shift and shaped by it. It has therefore either willingly adopted a more rationalist and propositional agenda, or it has reacted to secularisation by becoming more dogmatic and hard-edged on the one hand or more liberal on the other. Either way, the church has been confronted by the secular winds of change and struggled to make any headway against them.
There is, however, some resonance between the words of Madman and the Gospels. The centurion at the cross recognised Jesus as 'Son of God'—but as a dead god (Mark 15:39). Nevertheless, the story of the resurrection and empowerment of the church by the Holy Spirit, tells of new life coming to the followers of Jesus—such that they too became adopted sons and daughters of God (Romans 8:14). There may well be death, but the gospel message is of resurrection.
Mission? What mission?
Some challenge the view that the church has failed in its mission over the past sixty years. Instead, it has been suggested that there has been a movement toward 'quality over quantity'. A form of ecclesiological Darwinism has been proposed arguing that we have now become a people of 'true faith' (a holy remnant) after those 'others', who were tested and found wanting, left. Both these arguments seem to be rather self-justifying and internally referential, which is to say that they are not open to the critique of the wider world or even other Christians. After all, in these circumstances, how is one to decide what is 'quality' and on what grounds do we determine 'true faith' except on our own terms'? As Christians, we tend to be tribal on these matters rather than universal, which ultimately causes us to fail the gospel.
The church, as the people of God, has a mission to continue the ministry of Christ to all people and lead them into the kingdom of God, which includes acknowledgement of God's presence and authority. In my previous article I described this as being a 'sacrament to the world'—a relational activity involving an experience of God. Our mission is therefore about prioritising relationships over ideology or law, even though what we believe and do still matters.
It would seem that for many not only is God dead but so are meaning and truth. Part of the malaise of our world arises from a suspicion of truth and the rise of anomie and apathy—after all, if everything is relative then does anything actually matter anymore—or whatever? Certainly, life is complex, and people cannot hope to understand every aspect of the operation of the world around them, however complexity does not negate the need for truth; neither does the existence of competing perspectives on the nature of the world and the place of humanity within it. If truth is understood as the best, critically derived explanation that we have about a phenomenon, then it stands—it is not relative, but it can be warranted while also being provisional.
Relative truth might provide the opportunity for some openness in the business of exploration and understanding, but it is only useful at the beginning of the path of discovery. The inquiring mind seeks a better understanding of the world and the possibility of greater truth. To refuse to take the journey toward truth is to choose to remain in ignorance and thereby open oneself to the possibility of bigotry.
The person who wishes to participate actively in the process of understanding must also undertake the work of discernment and ultimately may have to take a stand for truth and justice. Such a person may be perceived as a threat to the lazy god of relativism, and it may cause him or her to become a pariah in the eyes of others. Such was the journey of Jesus—'the way, the truth and the life'.
What is at stake here is that without some enduring concept of truth it is difficult to justify any sense of morality. The amoral, the sociopaths and the wicked may well revel in this; however, society cannot function without moral truth. Activities such as murder, theft, incest, paedophilia, violence and dishonesty (to name a few), can only be properly condemned because of moral truth. Moreover, we cannot hope to correct our mistakes unless we accept that some things are 'right' and others 'wrong'.
The next step then is to look at the process of determining truth, which is probably the real issue at stake in our own times. What is acceptable practice and what is not in the establishment of truth? For most of the hard sciences it has been quite straightforward because of the use of the scientific method. It is less precise with the humanities (including theology) yet still necessary.
For example, the rule of law is vital to the operation of a modern secular liberal democracy, as it provides the 'social glue' that binds the community together. The law places limitations on people's behaviour and gives expression to the ideals and beliefs that are current in a community. In doing so, it has the capacity to rise above many of the social divisions based on class, religion and race. Yet, the law may also have the capacity to reflect the Christian concepts of freedom and grace; which, rather than being license to do as one desires, is an acknowledgement of the liberty to seek the truth, to choose the pursuit of goodness, and to participate in the welfare of all people through loving service and self-sacrifice. Nevertheless, the law is limited when it comes to understanding meaning and purpose.
The post-modern challenges of deconstructionism and subjectivism are before us. In response, what we need to do is recognise that the determination of truth is a work done in community where ideas are developed, tested and reworked. It is also helpful to recognise that truth can be understood in relational (or subjective) terms when applied to the activities of humanity. When Pontius Pilate asked, 'What is truth?' Jesus did not respond with a philosophical argument but rather with himself (John 18:38)—a bold act of defiance in the face of injustice.
My contention here is that religious truth is more than just a set of ideas but also touches on who we are in relationship with God and others. Theology therefore includes both a systematic collection of tested ideas about God and humanity, as well as the experiences that link us with these ideas that serve to prove and give expression to them. Theology is therefore about truth (as held by the community of faith) on the one hand, and integrity to that truth on the other when lived out through a commitment to both.
Belief and faith
A belief tends to involve the holding of a particular idea or proposition to be true, although it is based on either provisional evidence or assumptions that can only be proven later. Hence, I may believe that the bus will arrive at 5:30 pm to take me home, and the belief will be proven when the bus indeed arrives to do so.
In matters of faith it is expected that the question of the nature of belief will arise—what is it to believe something and why should we believe particular things? In answering this, it is usual to seek to justify a belief because it is reasonable (based on logic), coherent (in that it is consistent with other beliefs that connect with it) and verifiable (through its ability to be demonstrated to work). The degree to which these criteria are met give warrant (or otherwise) to the holding of such a position.
Having established its veracity, a belief can be further tested by the community—in the case of the church, both across cultures and down through history. There are degrees of warranted belief depending upon their capacity to be verified. A belief may become 'critically warranted' if it has been examined by the broad community and found to be reliable, even if it has not been proven through an event or experiment.
Belief, however, can vary within the context of faith because some things may not be able to be verified beyond the experience of the believer or are beyond the capacity to test with any sense of objectivity. Belief in God as creator may be logical and coherent within the framework of a theistic faith, but such a view is hard to verify. In the face of this, a mistake often taken by people of faith is to argue from a perspective of 'special pleading', which is to claim that a proposition is true despite its inability to be verified, while also claiming an exemption from the other critical tests of logic and coherence. Fundamentalists tend to opt for this position citing Biblical warrant that is based on an interpretation of the Bible that is at odds with all other critical faculties. An example is belief in a literal 'six day creation'.
Belief in God might also be argued from the perspective of self-evidence or its being a 'foundational belief'; which is to say that despite variations across cultures, belief in God is common to humanity in different places and down through history. Moreover, it is also not dependent upon other beliefs to be held. This can provide a basis for theistic belief upon which other more specific beliefs can then be built. Contemporary Christian theology has tended to follow this course, but with limited success.
Openness and mission
I raise the matters of truth, belief and faith in the context of mission because these matters often seem to be avoided in the church's engagement with the contemporary world. We are happy to share our narrative but struggle to relate that narrative to those who do not identify with it. Moreover, we are keen to moralise but often fail to establish the basis for our position. To characterise the situation: a person asks, 'Why should I believe in God?' and the Christian responds 'Because the Bible says so!' There are too many leaps of belief (warranted or otherwise) to go from the question to the answer.
The church has also tended to assume that the wider world understands its language, ideas and modus operandi, when in fact there is a gulf between the faith-culture and a modern world-view. When challenged, we church types tend to retreat into, either dogmatism, disengagement, or being 'nice'. However, to address the matters that Nietzsche raised over a century ago will necessitate the church bringing an appreciation of transcendence, providence and mystery back into the marketplace of ideas and faith—perhaps no easy task, but yet the unique thing that a religious view of the world has to offer.
The challenge for the church then, is to open itself to the world around it and seek a robust and honest engagement so that both may be transformed by the experience. Too often, the people of God separate themselves from the world; such as we see with our theological colleges that remain separate from the challenges of the wider academic world. When St Paul went to Athens he met with the people in the marketplace and engaged with them in debate seeking to communicate, in part, on their terms (Acts 17:16-34). The message the church seems to have given in recent times is that it has little interest in engaging with the world in this way—an attitude that is probably being reciprocated.
Perhaps we should rethink what we do. Instead of principally arguing theologically 'from above', using established doctrines and systematic theologies, we should approach more 'from below' through the things that seem to consume people's time, energy and resources. Ideas, beliefs and truths can be communicated in more ways than rationalist argument. In addition to the written and spoken word, communication can be achieved through music, art, drama, people's recreational activities and their social practices; all of which can disclose the things that inhabit the soul of a community.
In mission we are dealing with the meaning of life, the nature of existence, and the call to justice. It is for this reason that belief, faith and moral truth are important. The church has grappled with these things for centuries and regularly reshaped its approach for different cultures and times. The ability of the Christian faith to mould itself in this way has been its strength in mission, for it has understood that God is for all people, in all places, and across all times. The failure of the mission of the church has arisen from the narrowing of this focus away from all people and creation itself to being for an elect few. Such exclusivism breeds fear, contempt and hatred of the 'other' and manifests itself through arrogance, exclusivism and fundamentalism.
Finally, the mission of the church should engender hope by making visible the risen Christ to the world, bringing understanding, healing, liberation, reconciliation and justice. The church is therefore not the kingdom of God in itself, but rather a means of revealing its presence. To achieve this, it needs to be more open, engaged and vulnerable.