Dion's random ramblings

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A fine balance... I think this is where the Church often gets Christianity wrong.

There have been a few hints about the 'new thing' that I shall be doing. Don't worry, news about that will follow in due course.

However, I was in conversation with one of the senior leaders of the denomination that I serve about this new course when he asked me an interesting question. He said something like "Wouldn't that be a bit too evangelical for you, taking into account your approach to the social gospel?" In short, he was setting up a dichotomy between commitment to the Gospel (and bringing people to an understanding and lived relationship with the One (Jesus) who is the content of that 'good news), and my commitment to social justice, and issues of justice.

This comment made me think... There does seem to be a somewhat mistaken understanding that one is either committed to justice OR one is committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Such an understanding MUST be fundamentally mistaken! The Gospel of Jesus Christ IS a matter of justice. It is a matter of individual justice that brings freedom from the slavery of sin, and the causes of enslavement and death. Yet, it is just as much about finding ways of bringing justice, freedom, life, and wholeness to the whole of the world.

Brian Mclaren said it best when describing his move beyond the 'conservative reformed' view of Jesus in his book A generous orthodoxy. He suggests that one of the problems with the traditional (and I might add thoroughly Pauline) view of Jesus as the one who 'justifies' us is that it is almost exclusively bound to 'personal salvation'. In other words, Jesus is the one who died to forgive us for our personal sin, to set us free from our personal sin, and help us as individual persons to relate to God and the rest of the world. Of course this is absolutely correct, BUT, it is NOT the whole truth!

Before I say any more, let me say that I preach, live, and share this message with many people! I am radically committed to bringing individuals into a personal relationship with God in Christ, who longs to relate to each of us as individuals! In fact, I think that this personal relational element of the Good News is the antidote to 'religion' - it forces us, as all true and honest relationships do, to live with the truth of who we are in close relationship with Jesus who knows us intimately.

So, in that sense I am fundamentally evangelical (in other words, I am committed to to evangelism - (the root for this English word is the Greek word meaning 'Good News') I want people not only to hear, but to discover the good news that they can find a living, close, and real relationship with the God who created and re-creates the whole of the cosmos!) However, this cannot be the whole truth!

You see simply to emphasise individual salvation (a 'personal' relationship with Jesus) can lead to some serious pathologies! One could quite easily start to think that Jesus does not care about other people who are different from us (such as poor people, gay people, rich people, evangelicals, liberals, Muslims, Hindu's etc. I think you get the idea). It could also lead us to think that all that Jesus is worried about is forgiving my personal sins. Sadly, personal sin is often a symptom of social sins... For example, I am convinced that a lot of individual greed is a result of consumerism. Or, the disregard for the poor has a lot to do with the monetization and commodificiation of value based on income (i.e., only people who can contribute to the economy are valued... This tells us that we are basing our value judgment of persons on their bank accounts, not on the fact that they are created in the image of God).

Mclaren says that what we need is a balance between individual justification and social justice!

That is a wonderful summary of my own view of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ - a fine balance between justification and justice. The one cannot be complete without the other.

I cannot truly be saved, or at peace (which is surely a sinful personal state), while there are people who are dying from AIDS, or people who are dying of hunger etc... My individual salvation is caught up with God's plan to save the whole world!

So, yes, I am committed to JUSTICE, but I am also committed to JUSTIFICATION!

Central to this false dichotomy, as I have explained before, is a false worldview that is based on modernism. Modernism has to operate (because of the influence of secular Newtonian science and Cartesian philosophy) with the principles of non-exclusion. In other words, if one is faced with two seemingly opposed notions of truth only one could possibly be true, while the other is false. This is a mistake! There are many areas in which 'truth' is based upon a complex tension between 'truths'... That's why I like the postmodern conversation so much! It forces me to ask questions about what I agree with, and what I don't agree with. I cannot simply reject something as untrue. Perhaps it is not untrue, but just marginally true! That's the negative position.

There is also a positive approach to the complexity of competing truths. That is the notion of holarchies, as found in the writings of Ken Wilber, (I have written about this elsewhere - or you can listen to a podcast that I recorded way back on 2005 that discusses these principles - podcast on Ken Wilber).

The analogy is this: Lesser truths add value to greater truths, and greater truths give lesser truths their 'fuller perspective' on truth. The example I always us is based upon grammatical construction in language.

The letter 'O' in the alphabet has an individual and unique meaning. Yet it gains greater meaning when it is complexified and included in the word 'lOve'. The word has a greater meaning than the letter 'O'. However, it the word cannot assume that it is more important than the letter, since the word cannot exist apart from the letter 'O' that is a constituent part of its meaning! Yet, the letter means very little on its own - it only becomes 'true' when included in the word. One can go further and say that truth of the letter 'O' gains fuller meaning when the word 'lOve' is included in a sentence, "I lOve you".... And so the analogy grows. The sentence gains complexity as it forms part of a paragraph, the paragraph as it forms part of a chapter, the chapter as it is part of a story, the story as it is part of history, history as it is part of all human life, human life as it relates to all of who and what God is...

Each of the smaller truths needs to be included into the ever complexifying notion of developing truth! So, I am evangelical, and socially committed, I am a Christian....

In my understanding TRUTH is not something that can be summed up in a statement, rather it is much more like an unfolding story of grace. We discover where TRUTH is, and also where it is NOT. Truth is also a moveable thing. It might be entirely correct to say, for example, that when I was 5 I wanted to be fireman! Yet, as I grew and developed in my understanding that truth changed... Something of that desire (courage, heroism, service, saving lives) has remained with me - so the desire is still as true today as it was a 5, yet what that truth has become in the story of my life is something different. It is not that my desire at 5 is untrue, and my life now is true, they are all part of one and the same story of truth.... I hope that makes sense?

I think sometimes this is where the Church goes wrong! It labels itself far to strongly in one form of 'truth' and so remains a 'word' that negates the 'letters' that give it meaning, and looses out on the fuller meaning of becoming part of a greater 'sentence of love'.

I know this could be said much more clearly... But it was just a thought, in response to a question, that is a part of a conversation, that is about my life, which is about living for eternity!

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  • It constantly amazes me, the Christian's need to pigeon hole, and to base assumptions on that tag. In my selection process I was asked to describe my churchmanship. I politely suggested I didn't think it important or productive to put myself into a box quite so early in my ministry.

    The response came. Just answer the question.

    By Blogger Paddy, at 2:14 PM  

  • I believe in the emerging truth in our own lives. As we come to embrace Jesus so the emerging truth of our own lives in relation to Jesus as well as others, comes to know and embace the needs of our world. The true truth of the outworking of that should then be seen in the way ee live our lives and do what we can with what is given to us.

    By Blogger Herman G, at 12:03 PM  

  • Dion I agree wholeheartedly with your post. I have one question though: How do you maintain that balance? The reason I ask is because when I read McLaren's 'Secret Message of Jesus' I see him quite radically losing that balance and simply moving from one pole of the Christian tradition to another. What do you do practically to maintain balance?

    By Blogger Stephen, at 3:34 PM  

  • BTW - Happy Birthday! Have a good one.

    By Blogger Stephen, at 6:32 PM  

  • Hey Stephen,

    Thanks very much for the kind wishes... I'm getting old my friend ;-) I've turned 26 for the 10th time... Perhaps that joke is older than I am?

    Now with regards to balance, that is truly a difficult one to answer. I am not quite sure just what one does in order to maintain it. However, like so many things in life, a LACK of balance is something that one seems to be able to spot instinctively!

    Perhaps it is the Spirit of God working within us to give us discernment as to when the balance is off.

    I have personally been off balance on both sides of this divide, and if I am honest I am probably spending most of my life trying to recapture my balance.

    I have found that some simple disciplines tend to keep me aware of the need for balance. So, I still choose to pray and read the scriptures every day. Even when I am not preaching the lectionary (because I preach at a 'mega church' that prefers to follow themes, I still choose to read the lectionary readings in my devotions each week.

    I also fast every week. Not only because I need to be reminded that I am more hungry for food than I am for God. However, I also need to be reminded constantly that there are so many people (even within walking distance of my home) who cannot choose when to eat...

    Just as I have to subject myself to scripture as a revelatory truth of God's will for me and for others, I also find that I often have to subject myself to listening for the voice of God in the voices of 'others'.

    So, I choose to place myself among those in society who are marginalised, missunderstood, and dissregarded (refugees, the poor, gay Christians, young people, old people, and in my Church context even white people!) If find that my subjecting myself to those place and people I come to discover some balance between personal piety and social holiness.

    Of course this carries through in most of my life. Although I know that the concept of the 'tithe' does not mean 10% (probably somewhere between 3% and 40% depending which part of Levitical and Deuteronomic law one reads) I still choose to tithe. First, it helps me to honour and acknowledge the God who feeds and clothes and supports me. But I also tithe because it is difficult, and that fealing of difficulty reminds me that I am a slave to my money... It has power over me. It keeps me from being free and generous...

    I think you get the idea? It is not so much what I do that creates the balance, but what I feel when I am not balanced that helps me to set some boundaries and create some discipline.

    Blessings to you my friend! I value your inputs a great deal.

    Now, I need to take a few breaths... At my age that is not easy you know ;-)

    By Blogger digitaldion (Dion Forster), at 7:46 PM  

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