Yesterday I suggested that the Christian Church cannot offer an unqualified ‘yes’ to some of the essential characteristics of American society. Which raises the question, What is the role of the Christian Church in society?
The American climate has been incredibly hospitable to the Church. In nearly all other western cultures the Church has declined, even if it has not been disestablished. The question in Europe is, ‘Which church DON”T you attend?’ In America, on the other hand, between 1945 and 1975 church affiliation in went from roughly forty two percent to sixty nine percent. And although, forty years on we are seeing a decline in these numbers, there is no lack of interest in spirituality. So what is should our role be?
First, we can exclude several roles the Church does not play in our society. We do not have an established Church, assigned by the government to attend to religious matters only. Secondly, we do not have a revolutionary Church in all-out opposition to the society and its values. Thirdly, we do hot have an excluded Church which plays no role in society.
Someone once suggested that we should think of ourselves as a ‘conspiritorial’ Church’. The word actually comes from the latin, ‘conspiro’, which means to breath together or act in harmony. Seen in this way, the Church is a community that can make alliances with others which both affirm aspects of society but also stand over against society. For we do not share all the values upon which this country was established. Here’s how it works.
What does the Church do with critical reason and human autonomy when it also has revelation? We believe both. How does the Church move between fundamentalism on the one hand, which has ONLY revelation, and liberal secularism which has NO revelation?
We are thankful for the scientific study of nature. Who among us would prefer a return to the medical practices of the sixteenth century, for example? At the same time, the Church is confronted with the fact that ‘scientism’ cannot have the last word. We are confronted with a host of value\meaning questions which science would just as soon ignore. How is God involved in nature without being absent from it?
Our culture promotes optimism and progress. But on what grounds? Christianity is not about optimism or progress, it is about hope. How does the Christian witness make the critical distinction between hope and optimism?
Finally, tolerance. Of course the Christian is for it. But does it mean that we are to abandon all absolute claims? Can we be the Church and at the same time simply join the parade of world religions?
Our culture asks religion to serve as a kind of benign chaplaincy which simply blesses everything. The Christian Church cannot do so. And this is something our culture does not understand about us. For our presence in society is meant to bear witness to the reality of God as uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ with all its implications for church and society.
In whatever society we find ourselves as Christians, our role is to point to Jesus Christ who stands over against all other absolute claims which exclude Him, and by whose Cross all things in heaven and earth are reconciled and find their true meaning.
“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”