What I have spelled out on this page are questions that I struggle with and tug at my soul, and the provisional answers that I have been led towards. The process of wrestling with these questions as a faithful Christian has, in turn, stretched and strengthened my faith, and gives me some clues as to my unfolding trajectory in my adventures of life and ministry.
Nevertheless, I do not believe that everyone must ask these questions — much less come to the same conclusions on these matters that I have. If you find that I have presented dubious concerns as serious questions, this is because these concerns have become serious questions for me through my peculiar experience and thinking. Likewise, if you find that I have stated questionable conclusions as though they are common sense, this is because they have become common sense to me through my rather strange calling and pursuit of it.
There is room for diversity in God's Kingdom. In my travels, it has been a great challenge for me, as a person with a very active and critical mind, to meet people who have a "simple" faith — that is, a faith that is not so exaggeratedly (or pathologically) cerebral as mine tends to be. I have found that I have a lot to learn from such Christians, who are the Lord's beloved.
Conversely, you may find that you agree with me. You might find yourself vigorously nodding when I ask certain questions, and even when I proffer my shallow, provisional answer for them. Great. We have something in common, and I look forward to our ongoing conversation as we walk down this peculiar path.
Indeed, it is possible that you may agree with me too much. You may find the questions that have challenged me to be even more challenging for you. You might conclude that I have given in to piety too early and coped-out with easy answers to keep my faith intact. If you find yourself thinking such things, I would like to remind you that crtical thought is the servant of faith, and not the other way around. If this were not so, we would very quickly lose the conviction that critical thought is a worthwhile enterprise.
To whatever extent you agree with me or disagree, I ask for the grace of your prayers, and for your astute assistance as I watch to keep my thoughts captive to the Gospel in an age of caustic cynicism. Having sold all to gain the pearl of great price, shall I then go about laboriously breaking clams in search of a lesser prize? Having recieved robes of righteousness through the grace of our Lord, shall I continue to pick among the rags?
It is possible to make an idol of our hard-won conclusions — or even the process of asking questions. This is obviously an outcome that I wish to avoid. But it is also possible to destroy legitimate and beautiful expressions of worship through undiscerning iconoclasm. This is no better. The way forward is cautiously, prayerfully — remembering Whose I am and the Price for which I was purchased.
I believe that if God gives you a spade, the best thing you can do is start digging. You may not understand when you begin why you or digging, or where you should be digging. Dig prayerfully, and pay attention, and these things will become clear.
These questions are my spade. God has implanted them in my mind for a reason. They inspire the way I think, the way I read the Gospel, the way I am choosing to live, and my long-term vision for ministry. I don't think that I can, by my actions, save the world — or even myself. But I do believe that if I am true to my calling, I will be a participant in the grand drama of life and salvation.
Why do some churches "die?"
Tertullian once famously remarked, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church." Ironically, Tertullian's hometown of Carthage was part of the once-flourishing Christian civilization of North Africa, decimated by Muslim conquerers in the eighth century. Tunisia, the modern state in which Carthage was located, today has virtually no indigenous Christian witness.
Did the blood of North African martyrs fall silently to the ground? Was God asleep when the great Christian civilizations of the Middle East were being systematically dismantled? Successful Nestorian missions in China and Japan were so thoroughly annihilated that today we barely have record of their existence.
Historical evidence seems to indicate that the spread of the Gospel is not a linear, inevitable triumph. How can we reconcile the death of churches and Christian civilizations with our understanding of a powerful God who is both active in history and concerned about the salvation of souls? Indeed, our Christian structures and civilizations are as vulnerable as any other — if Christian civilization in North Africa can be annihilated, why not Christian civization in North America? Some would say this has already happened, or is happening, in Europe. Our fulfillment of the Great Commission seems, by many measures, to have taken one step forward and two steps back.
Sustained prayer and thought has produced for me three answers to this question. First, God's view of history must be different than ours. It is difficult to see how the gruesome destruction of Christian communities has anything to do with the ultimate mission of evangelizing the nations. But that doesn't mean a connection is impossible: simply that it seems unlikely. Who knows? Perhaps seeds are buried deep within the ground that will one day sprout again.
Second, God's mechanism of ultimate salvation must be broader than our theological categories. Is it possible that, although the visible forms of the Church and the audible praise of the name of Jesus has departed from some corners of the earth, that His saving presence is there still? I cannot limit God by saying no, but neither would I presume to have answers to the theological challenges that would come from trying to say yes. These matters of salvation are in God's hands.
Regardless, as one of the Church whose spiritual food is in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I still feel this impulse to share the Gospel, as though it were indeed a matter of eternal life and eternal death. Perhaps salvation works outside of the mechanisms that I know, that I have learned about and experienced, but I don't want to wait till Judgement Day to find out.
Finally, perhaps the experience of earthly annihilation and extinction that some churches have experienced have occurred as a lesson for us. Perhaps we are meant to listen to and learn from their experience. After all, there is no greater imitation of the suffering of Christ in a community than its painful and violent elimination.
Where does the Gospel end, and culture begin? What is the relationship between Gospel and culture?
Every Christian culture has interpreted the Gospel in its own way. As Lawrence Watson once cleverly remarked, "When [Christianity] went to Greece, it became a philosophy. When it went to Rome, it became an institution. When it went to Europe, it became a culture. When it went to America it became an enterprise." And over the centuries, it's gone to many other cultures and become many other things.
In the course of schisms in the early church, and the denominational divides of Protestant Christianity, it is observable that most divisions grow, not from purely theological differences, but from differences in culture and language. I do not doubt that theological consensus is important, but do we really have the wisdom to distinguish between differences in theology that need to be bridged and differences in culture that should be allowed to flourish?
This question has become particularly pointed in the last century, with the rise of post-colonial critique. We are suddenly hearing voices from around the world, that our incursions with the civilizing Gospel of Western civilization were not exactly welcome or helpful — and indeed caused a significant amount of pain. Some of these voices are even Christian, complaining that Western missionaries combined the sweet medicine of the Gospel with the oppressive symbols and assumptions of European superiority and racial dominance.
Perhaps we can argue that these uncomfortable moments were a necessary phase in the unfolding of God's plan. But does this change the fact that mistakes were made. As a Church, we need to both apologize for these mistakes, and learn from them.
As I understand it, the Gospel is a force for conversion, rebirth, and transformation that comes to us miraculously through imperfect human vessels. On a larger social scale, as the Gospel penetrates and transforms individual hearts, a redemption of the mechanisms of state occurs as saints and prophets call leaders to repentance and action in accordance with God's will and the Law of Love.
It seems that, from time to time, rather than being the force that redeems society, the Gospel becomes the proclaimed basis for society. However, to my knowledge, no society, Christian or otherwise, has ever managed to overcome the inherent challenges of being human. Greed, fear, evil, decadance, prejudice: all of these things seem to creep into the best and most thoughtfully-constructed societies. Consequently, even Gospel cultures are in need of Gospel redemption and renewal.
But how does the Gospel reenter a culture that claims to understand it and be founded on its principles? It is possible for God to spontaneously appoint and empower a prophet, and occasionally He does. But in my experience and from my reading of Scripture and history, it seems to me that prophets are most likely emerge from the margins of society, where they are less pressured to conform, and have more opportunities to interact with people from radically different cultures.
This is part of why cross-cultural evangelism is so important. We tell our sacred stories to people from radically different cultural backgrounds, and then they begin to tell them back to us in their own words. We hear the Gospel again, as though for the first time, and are called to a deeper conversion and transformation that doesn't leave space for our culturally-condoned vices.
I would even go a step further and say that the faithful Christian can find the fragments of the Gospel woven into any cultural artifact. Thus, if we listen with the ears of Christ, we can hear the Gospel preached by a shaman or yogi, we can hear it echoing through music, film, and literature, or hear it rhymed in Persian couplets by a whirling dervish. But this is a special office. To the young Christian, I would say it is far better to master the Gospel through the words passed down through our culture and community before seeking it in the intimate tongue of another.
Is Islam inevitably a force that we are fighting in mortal combat — in a sort of "spiritual cold war?" Or is there another way to look at it?
We can't always agree on what is good, but right now, Americans have a pretty clear sense of what is "not good." Islam is bearing a lot of the blame for everything we are afraid of or worried about as a culture. Old wounds and chafes between Christian and Muslim communities have been itching again, and this seems particularly pronounced amongst Christians, who are prone to spiritualize the conflict.
For me personally, Islam has always been an unusual and somewhat uncomfortable part of my heritage. My grandfather did missions work in Pakistan, and my mother grew up there. It has always been an attractive subject for me to think about, and traveling the subcontinent gave me a little more first hand experience to sort through.
I believe that we have a lot to learn from Islam. The conservative social fabric has preserved much of the original cultural context in which the Gospel and early Christian community thrived, and the literature of the Muslim world contains references to paleo-Christian ideas that weren't preserved in the West.
We often ask, "Why are Muslims so invested in this jihad?" I think a far more instructive question is "Why don't Christians jihad?" There is plenty to be disaffected with in modern society, whether decadence, or inequity, or oppression. I'm afraid that the answer is probably not that we Western Christians are more evolved or more theologically astute, but simply that we benefit from the current system.
What is the future of our society?
Pick yer prophet — most of them don't have kind things to say about our future prospects as a society and as a nation. Some claim our destruction of the environment is to blame, others claim it is political or economic mismanagement. Others will credit our disregard for God's law and widespread immortality, for which we have earned divine retribution. Still others look to the inevitable end of oil and the limitation of other resources, foresee lengthy, destructive wars or nuclear calamity, or claim a constellation of natural disasters will fatally disrupt our broad-based interdependencies. Some say things will change in an instant, others say there will be a long, drawn out decline. There are different opinions of how and when, but the long-term trajectory is generally agreed upon.
And we don't have to rely on shaky prophecies — ask any historian. Great civilizations rise and fall, empires come and go, societies collapse, or transform beyond all recognition. We've lived in a time of relative peace and stability, but that shouldn't lull us into believing that things cannot or will not change. The structures of our culture are not divinely ordained, and in fact, they are basically guaranteed to change, and quite probably, with trauma and tribulation. It is only a matter of when.
This is not to say that we shouldn't participate in society, or cynically contribute to its decadence and decline. "When," after all, could be a long way away. But we must keep in mind the mortality of the systems we build. Like our bodies, they will die and pass away into oblivion. We must keep this in mind when we choose to identify closely with the abstract story of our culture or society or group.
Pondering this leaves us with the ultimate question — what is it that we really believe in? What is truly worthwhile? In general, I believe that as Christians we are called to discover ways of participating in society that do not inextricably entwine us within it. And, I believe that our history and traditions as Christians offer an array of alternative ways to structure our society and relationships than our current system provides. These could prove quite useful in the next chapter of life on earth (to say nothing about God's plan of salvation!)
From my own reading and reflection, I have come to believe that a massive social transition brought on by energy descent (producing gradually less energy as fossil fuels become less abundant) will begin very soon, if indeed it has not already begun. But I am less concerned with propagating this thesis than I am interested in living prophetically in a way that takes this reality into account. I see it as a matter of vocation-inspired direction, rather than inevitable common sense that I have to confront others with. Who knows what the future really holds? After all, at any moment, circumstances can change; God can intervene in any way he chooses.
Still, here is another spade that God has put into my hands. And so, I've been digging. One hundred square feet of vegetable garden this summer, in fact.