Living in a time of cultural change
You do not need to look near or far to see and recognize the sea change taking place at this time the world over, especially in Western democracies. I have seen the impact of “progressive values and agenda” and its impact on a culture in two parts of the world that I care about, one is in the province of Quebec here in Canada, and the other is the Republic of Ireland, the country to the south of the land of my birth, Northern Ireland. In both cases, it has been the progressive agenda that has become a catalyst for change, major social and attitudinal change in society and culture. Both Quebec and Ireland have historically been bastions of of conservative Roman Catholicism, but since the 1960’s in Quebec and the 1990’s in Ireland, the demise of the influence of the Roman Church has lead to a great shift in society, a shift in morality, social ethics, and the erosion of traditional religious and spiritual beliefs and practices and attitudes, which have now led to the changes we see in law and social arrangements. The world we know has not so much shifted from, but has been transformed into a new world, a world many of our parents and grandparents would not recognize. Some would say we are now fully in a “post-Christian” world. I would argue we are in a “pre-Christian” world.
The actions we take are a reflection of the beliefs we actually believe
The essence of philosophy and theology (used to be part of the same department in universities until the last century), is the evaluation, study and debate of ideas, the ideas that form and shape our belief systems, and govern out actions. From within these two disciplines we find our basis for our ethical and moral conduct and the laws we form for governing all human engagement and enterprises, from how we govern ourselves and make common laws we agree upon, to how we ethically behave in engagement in politics, business, education, healthcare, foreign policy, domestic policy, and any other human activity. Or order to be fully human, we organize ourselves, and form a basis of how our society will engage in all these kinds of activities, and find the common “rules of law” that we will adhere to in order to not only survive but thrive as human beings. What we do, and how we engage, all reveals and reflects what we truly believe in our core. It also reveals, when we contradict or deny those sets of beliefs, we usually form another set of beliefs that more reflect the change in attitude and action. We eventually confront the beliefs and change, for good or ill.
Whether we like it or not, the Church is part of the world, and what happens in the world affects the Church
Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence speaks of the role of religious faith or spirituality and its relationship the world in which we live. She speaks of the great changes that occur in society every five hundred years where there are seismic shifts in all of society, and these shifts affects how the Church sees itself and its mission in the world. The Church is indeed at a “cross roads”. Tickle says:
“Religion, whether we like it or not, is intimately tied to the culture in which it exists. One can argue—with only varying degrees of success, though—that private faith can exist independent of its cultural surround. When, however, two or three faith-filled believers come together, a religion—possibly more of a nascent or proto-religion—is formed. Once formed, it can never be separated entirely from its context. Just as surely as one of the functions of religion is to inform, counsel, and temper the society in which it exists, just so surely is every religion informed and colored by its hosting society. Even a religion’s very articulation of itself takes on the cadences, metaphors, and delivery systems of the culture that it is in the business of informing. Thus, when we look at these semi-millennial tsunamis of ours, we as Christians must be mindful of the fact that the religious changes effected during each of them were only one part of what was being effected, and that all the other contemporaneous political, social, intellectual, and economic changes were intimately entwined with the changes in religion and religious thought.”
― Phyllis A. Tickle,
All this change in the culture in which I live here in Canada, and North America is a change that is affecting every sector of society, and the Church is facing a huge challenge at this time, probably the biggest challenge since the Reformation of five centuries ago. The question I have for the Church, is whether or not it will seek to retain its “prophetic voice” or will become consumed with “cultural relevance” and become muted in the process, vanilla flavoured, with little to differentiate it or distinguish it from the cultural amoral and ethical morass that is fast becoming the normative attitude and fabric of our culture.
The world my children have inherited from me is not the world that I grew up in. Society was in a flux of change from the Hippie Generation until now. The teenage rebels of the 1960’s are today’s senior citizens, who are now living with the fruit of their rebellion. That rebellion and its children led to the Civil Rights movement, the Bill of Rights, and the massive rights movements in Western Democracies, that changed laws and attitudes from reproductive rights, the feminist liberation movements, political rights movements, individual rights and civil liberties movements, the LGBTQ movements, changes in laws affecting persons, property, movement, privacy, liberty, marriage and family laws, and a host of others. The world today is radically different from when I was a teenager in the middle 1970’s. A vastly different world, some of it good and some of it not so good.
In the middle of the changes, the Church has a choice to make
In the times of vast changes the Church in the world, the people of God, who as His representatives on the earth, as His redeemed people, His “agents of grace” have a choice to make. In each generation, the Church must address to current culture, and it has a choice how how it interacts with the culture, on how it both relates to the culture at large, and how it engages with the culture. The Church can either become a reflection of the culture or it can retain it’s prophetic voice and challenge the culture anew with the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
We live in a time when image and political correctness are at an all time high, where the maxim within the culture is largely the same as what was prevalent in the day of of Joshua, “In those days there was no king in Israel. People did whatever they felt like doing” (Joshua 17:6; 21:25). Today it is no different. The moral compass has been flipped on its head. Whatever was right yesterday is not right today. What was wrong last week is right today. Look at all the social mores of our day, and those social precepts and previously accepted codes of conduct, have all been transformed, changed, rejected or replaced by another set of precepts that are more palatable to culture at large, and the Church and its historic views and teachings are confronted with this change and challenge every day. The Church has a choice to either conform to the “new progressive attitude” or find its prophetic voice to challenge the culture at large, and offer an alternative to the new prevailing attitude of the day.
When the Church retains its prophetic voice and challenges the culture it will be viewed as culturally irrelevant
The Church needs to face up to several key ideas and concepts, and realize that there is a cost attached to embracing and living out these ideas prophetically in the culture. The culture will both largely reject the Church and deem the Church to be “culturally irrelevant”. I believe in this season of change, that it is an opportunity for the Church to become both renewed and transformed as well as “counter-culturally” revolutionary.
- Christians in the culture need to recover a clear understanding of who they are as Christians and where their true loyalties lie. Christians are in the unique position of being citizens of two kingdoms. They are first citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, and secondly citizens of whatever earthly state in which they domicile. Whenever laws of a state are in conflict with the clear teaching of God in Scripture, Christians are in the awkward position of discerning and determining how they will respond to the challenge of the laws of the land to their understanding of what God requires of them. Scripture and history are replete with examples of this kind of conflict, confrontation, and the choices that were forced on Christians, and believers in God. Perhaps on of the best known is that of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3, where the three refused to bow and worship the idol and were tested by fire and overcame. This has always been a key challenge to Christians in every generation, the challenge of remaining faithful to God or to the state.
2. Christians need to understand that the Church existed before democracy and will continue to exist as it does now, in situations where Christians lose their rights. Christians who live in Western Democracies are blessed and fortunate. When the Church exuded great influence in the developing Western world, it helped shape its worldview, its economic and political and social order. Over the last century that influence has waned and the Church seems to have lost its voice and its way. Christians need to understand that while they have civil rights like other citizens, being a Christian in our culture is not about defending our “rights” as much as using our “rights as citizens” to be agents of God and agents of good in our world, much like the apostle Paul used his Roman citizenship in Acts 24 as a tool for the Kingdom of God in the Roman world of the first century.
3. The work of transforming our world, is the same as it is for transforming our own lives. It is the work of God. Christians need to embrace the fact that in God and through God, we have the opportunity to be His agents of change in the world. Individually God has called us to love God and love people. That is the only thing we have been commanded to do. God is the one who changes and transforms the lives of individual people and of nations. The only thing we can control is our response to situations, and as Christians our response is to love others. Christians understand that in loving people, be they friends or “enemies”, we are not condoning their actions, but are simply loving them as God enables us to love others. It is the fruit of a heart changed by the God who is love. When it comes to issues of the state, the Christian is commanded in Romans 13 to obey the laws in so far as they do not contravene the laws of God, pray for the authorities, and pay their taxes. There is nothing here that is remotely “democratic” and nothing that pertains to “rights” but more so to “responsibilities to God and to the state.
4. Christians should get back to the basics of loving God and loving people and not worry about the cultural loss of influence. Greg Boyd has written a masterful work, The Myth of the Christian Nation in which he articulates how historically, and how currently, the quest of American Christians for political power is contrary to the Kingdom of God and the Gospel and has historically only led to disaster. It should be required reading for any serious Christian. Christians need to get back to the basics of love, and embracing others in the love of God and back to proclaiming the life transforming power of the cross and serving others. Christians should leave the politics of the land well enough alone. Let’s start with the basics of loving God and loving others, and let’s see what happens to those within our circle of influence. As we throw in that pebble of love into the water, how wide will the circles become and who will it impact? Will you embrace again loving God and loving people and not worry about cultural relevance or the need for political power?
I close with a quote from Greg Boyd from The Myth of a Christian Nation.
“Participants in the kingdom of the world trust the power of the sword to control behavior; participants of the kingdom of God trust the power of self-sacrificial love to transform hearts. The kingdom of the world is concerned with preserving law and order by force; the kingdom of God is concerned with establishing the rule of God through love. The kingdom of the world is centrally concerned with what people do; the kingdom of God is centrally concerned with how people are and what they can become.The kingdom of the world is characterized by judgment; the kingdom of God is characterized by outrageous, even scandalous, grace.”
― Gregory A. Boyd,