Essay, Research Paper: Christianity Crisis


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There was a time, not long ago, when the evangelical community had considerable
consensus on lifestyle questions and social issues. We generally agreed on what
we should eat and drink and how we might spend our weekends. There was little
debate over definitions of vulgarity or morality, and questions of fashion were
rarely a matter for discussion. In those days, everyone knew how a family should
be raised, and aberrations such as divorce and abortion were simply that:
problems found only among hose outside the fold. All of that has changed. Today
there is considerable disagreement on such questions, and where there is not
disagreement, there is often a reluctant silence or unwillingness to enter into
discussion on these questions. The problem is complicated by the fact that these
issues do not always fall neatly into those familiar gaps found among genders,
generations, and geographies. Too often we find uneasy disagreement among
parishioners or even among clergy in the same denomination. Similarly, tensions
are found among teenagers or among parents and not simply between those two
groups. In each case where such tensions exist, clear biblical and objective
bases for evaluating our modern society are usually not found. Consequently,
theological answers to these questions have generally not been helpful. That is
not to say we should expect them to be. Much of the difficulty in dealing with
contemporary social issues can be attributed to modernity with its tendency to
pose problems that all outside of theological answers. Theology is designed to
defend the faith and not to interpret modern culture or to help the believer
live in it. It is the province of social science to understand modernity and to
explain how it affects all of us. Theology cannot be expected to interpret the
impact of computers on modern life any more than social science can be expected
to explain the Trinity. What theology can do is to elucidate those universal
principles given to us by God that social science may then interpret for modern
living. My claim is that modern life has re-defined many of the practices that
theology traditionally addressed. State lotteries, for example, have defined
gambling in ways unfamiliar to theology. The revocation of blue laws concerned
with Sunday openings has challenged the traditional meaning of the Sabbath. In a
modern economy, the biblical meaning of poverty differsgreatly from the meaning
found today. In each of these cases, traditional biblical interpretations do not
address the questions experienced today. Consequently, there is a lag in
theological thinking when contemporary social issues fall outside the boundof
traditional theological answer. Our problem is to locate some common ground
where theology and social science can join forces, some bridge between biblical
truth and the application of that truth to modern social problems. I would argue
that concepts found in scripture as well as in social science form a common,
hermeneutical base for the analysis of modern social issues. Referred to here as
"hidden threads," these concepts tie together, so to speak, the
meaning God intended us to find in the world with meaning as we find it today.
What is the meaning in the modern marriage that is faithful to God's plan and
what has been added by humans? What is the meaning of money that God would have
us keep and what modern thinking should be discarded? These questions can only
be answered when theology and social science join forces. The harmful impact
made by modernity on society and Christian thought justifies such an approach.
To support that claim, I intend in this paper to: l) clarify the crises posed by
modernity, 2) develop the conceptual foundation referred to here as "hidden
threads" as it relates to these crises, and 3) encourage the development of
a hermeneutic which benefits from the interpretations offered by theology and
social science. Crisis of Meaning Much of traditional life was governed by the
belief that society's rules and norms were appropriate for governing human
relationships and were worthy of respect, if not full acceptance. Developments
in Western culture over the past 30 years or so have reversed much of this
belief and substituted the notion that people shape rules as they interact.
Instead of fitting relationships into normative expectations, those
relationships may now be used to define new norms for behavior. Consequently,
there is no clear agreement on the meaning of either the norms or the behavior.
In effect, modern culture is re-defining much of the meaning attributed by God
to social life. Divorce has increasingly been accepted as the norm rather than
the exception in marriage. Leisure has gradually become a substitute for work
rather than a respite from it. The motivation to be first has replaced the
willingness to be last. In each case, a traditional meaning for some practice
ordained by God has been replaced by a counterfeit. The Assumption of
Consistency Believers have generally made two assumptions about those issues
produced when modernity challenges traditional values. The first assumption is
that there is a consistency of meaning in scripture which can be objectively
accepted and applied in modern society. Since scriptural meanings are often more
subjective than objective and require interpretation before they may be
understood correctly, this assumption cannot be made with good conscience or
absolute confidence. The case of murder and what it means in scripture is a case
in point. From the Ten Commandments, we understand the simple, direct
prohibition of the act of murder (Exodus 20:l3). This is an objective meaning
given by God to His people which, traditionally, has been interpreted to mean
that any act of murder is prohibited. The assumption is that a person will
refrain from the act out of fear of punishment, if for no other reason.
Traditionally, this meaning of murder has avoided some of the traps inherent in
a broader interpretation of the question. But Jesus gives such an interpretation
in Matthew 5:2l-26. His concern is not with the outward action but with sin
committed in the heart before the act is committed. The person who is angry with
a brother is as great an offender as the one who commits the act of murder.
Since the Mosaic Law could only deal with the act, Jesus sets a higher standard,
one that is less objective than the act and also open to subjective
interpretation. Especially if the phrase "without cause" is added as
in some manuscripts, murder becomes an attitude of the heart. Consequently,
murder has now a subjective as well as an objective meaning. In Jesus' view,
some interpretation of the meaning of murder is required. The need for such an
interpretation is even greater today as murder and anger can be expressed in a
variety of new and unpredictable ways. The Assumption of Separation The second
assumption about modernity's challenge of traditional values is that believers
can clearly separate their lives into that which is worldly and that which is
not. Thinking they share a biblical system of meaning distinct from worldly
systems of meaning, believers often assume their world is also separate from and
immune to the evils of modern society. In fact, such separation doesn't exist.
The problem as Newbigin sees it is that "the layman and woman are
themselves part of modern culture and cannot with integrity divide their mental
world into two parts, one controlled by culture and the other by the
Bible". Newbigin's statement suggests the problem of meaning is both mental
and cultural. Believers are "in the world," culturally, and cannot
assume they are "not of the world" without asking, mentally, what that
involvement might mean. There must be some personal interpretation of that
culture and its meaning for the believer. While scripture is fundamental for
making such an interpretation, a broader hermeneutic may be needed. Thus,
Newbigin calls for: a genuinely missionary encounter between a Scriptural faith
and modern culture. By this I mean an encounter which takes our culture
seriously yet does not take it as the final truth by which Scripture is to be
evaluated, but rather holds up the modern world to the mirror of the Bible in
order to understand how we, who are part of modern culture, are required to
re-examine our assumptions and reorder our thinking and acting. 2 A crisis of
meaning, then, is largely a crisis of interpretation, first, as it applies to
scripture as objective, but also and more importantly for our purposes here - as
interpretations of scripture are to be worked out in our culture. From the
earliest times, events in scripture had been interpreted in traditional ways for
a traditional culture. But as Newbigin claims, "the interpretation has to
be reinterpreted over and over again in terms of another generation and another
culture". 3 Modern culture challenges many traditional meanings of
scripture which may require new interpretations for living in our world. A
Crisis of Culture The principle of culture refers to some shared meaning among
persons. Traditionally, people agreed on the meaning of behavior that they
experienced in intimate settings. Contracts were not 7 needed and all understood
the meaning and necessity of work. Moral behavior was readily defined, and good
and evil were clearly separable. Strong consensus developed as moral definitions
were accepted and supported by the community. Much of the crisis of culture
today results from the forces of modernity that have redefined traditional
meanings for many evangelicals. Gambling and divorce, for example, are often
seen as less "worldly" than they were 30 years ago. Other changes such
as the definition of biological life in terms of brain wave patterns or poverty
in terms of statistical indices, are now open to personal interpretations that
may challenge the traditional culture. In each case, modernity has abstracted
traditional meanings or activities in ways that some believers accept and others
oppose with equally good consciences. How to interpret these formerly shared
meanings now becomes problematic. The Assumption of Prioritization One of the
assumptions of modern evangelicals is that their decision-making is based on
values derived from more ultimate and often traditional value commitments. They
assume that decisions are largely principial, rather than pragmatic, and guided
by cultural values that all agree upon. In fact values are not necessarily given
priority in the evangelical community. They may be just as problematic for
believers as non-believers when they are too abstract or remote from everyday
life. Modernity has eroded much of the influence that values have traditionally
had on the decision-making of evangelicals. Although "culture as
values" has been considered an integral part of the Christian heritage,
Swidler argues that people give more priority to "strategies of
action" than to the values guiding that action. 4 She suggests that all
real cultures contain diverse, often conflicting symbols, rituals, stories, and
guides to action. The reader of the Bible can find a passage to justify almost
any act, and traditional wisdom usually comes in paired adages counseling
opposite behaviors. A culture is not a unified system that pushes action in a
consistent direction. Rather, it is more like a "tool kit" or reper-
toire from which actors select differing pieces for con- structing lines of
action. 5 Evangelicals are not immune to such a "tool kit" approach to
culture. Like everyone else, they experience the discontinuities caused by the
inability to maintain traditional lifestyle patterns. They may also choose among
a host of new options for behavior. Swidler refers to such persons as those with
"unsettled lives" - "those involved in constructing new
strategies of action" - and suggests they are unlikely to depend on values
for decision-making. Only those with "settled lives" - "those for
whom culture is intimately integrated with action" - will depend more on
values for deciding actions. 6 The Christian ideal of settled lives, as Swidler
describes it, is weakening. The trends to increased divorce and dysfunctional
families in the evangelical community, for example, suggest the increase in
unsettled lives there. The trend is also seen in Hunter's data on evangelical
students which suggest there is a drift toward androgyny as students question
traditional roles of men and women. "Singleness as a life-style option for
women has then become increasingly legitimate not only for the larger population
of Americans but for Evangelicals as well." 7 Modernity offers a plethora
of new and attractive options for old behaviors. Priority is now often given to
these options instead of traditionally agreed upon values. Increasingly,
believers shop on Sunday and replace evening services with the Super Bowl. The
priority given to the traditional meaning of the Sabbath as a day of rest is now
open to interpretation. The Assumption of Integrity Another cultural problem in
the evangelical community involves the assumption that a fundamental integrity
in the Christian culture assures a lifestyle that is consistent and unified. It
centers in the belief that orthodoxy provides a shield against worldly choices
and that Christian culture, by definition, stands above the world's. Moberg
suggests that such integrity cannot be taken for granted: "Many Christian
group tolerate internal sins...even while they condemn similar failings of
others as 'dirty sins'". 8 Swidler implies that cultural integrity weakens
as diverse and conflicting symbols become more influential in rapidly changing
cultures. 9 Suggesting that "specific cultural symbols can be understood
only in relation to the strategies of action they sustain," Swidler argues
that old belief systems break down and are replaced by new. l0 In the case of
young women today, "they are not driven by their values, but by what they
find they have become good at, or at least accustomed to." ll This same
tendency to rely on personal interpretations of conflicting current symbols is
also seen in Hunter's data on attitudes of evangelicals toward traditional
parenting roles. l2 He argues that although evangelicals maintain more
traditional views of parenting than the majority of society, these views are
changing. While supporting the value of traditional familism, evangelicals are
less supportive of traditional parenting skills. This is especially true of
younger evangelicals, for example, who tend to share society's view that a
working mother can have just as secure a relationship with a child as a mother
who does not work. A culture of traditional, shared meanings is strained by the
explosion of new symbols generated by modernity and supported by the mass media.
Words traditionally deemed to be profane or vulgar are now commonplace. Even the
accepted definitions of life and death have been reinterpreted by modern
symbolic meanings. The person is left to choose among the offered symbols and
the cultural lifestyles they represent. A Crisis of Concepts In a traditional
society, people experienced the reality of life in a way shared by others who
had the same experience. There was consensus as words clearly described the
shared experience and the meaning it had for the culture. Modernity has
fragmented that consensus as words no longer have the clear meaning they used to
have. The meanings of marriage and family, for example, have been opened to
biased interpretations that accept a variety of referents for the concept.
Language has eroded as conceptual clarity has been replaced by conceptual
ambiguity. The Problem of Erosion In his discussion of symbolic realism, Bellah
claims that biblical language originally carried a truth that could not be
reduced to empirical propositions. l3 There was a noncognitive quality to
symbols that expressed reality as true. Modern consciousness looked behind this
symbolic meaning to find the precision in thinking that science required. The
result was "symbolic reductionism," the search for truth in the
experiences represented by the symbols rather than in the symbols themselves.
Bellah believes there has been a return in social science to an acceptance of a
higher view of symbols. Reality is not found only in objective symbols but also
in non-objective symbols which depend on an interaction of subject and object
for interpretation. His claim of symbolic realism rests on this subject-object
complex and the wholistic position which accepts symbols as constituting reality
rather than just describing it. Modern culture, however, has difficulty with the
notion of symbolic realism and continues to espouse symbolic reductionism. The
biblical notion of wisdom is a case in point. The concept suggests an insightful
use of knowledge which is not reducible to empirical means. But today, any
knowledge not based on what is considered to be "facts" is often
deemed invalid. Consequently, wisdom loses much of its credibility as a modern
form of knowledge. In a computerized age, information has taken the place of
wisdom and fact replaces faith as the basis for knowing truth. The erosion of
biblical language has led to symbolicreductionism. As modern life incessantly
produces new meanings to replace the old, biblical language gives way to symbols
that relate those meanings to modern life. In biblical language, the meaning of
a work-life was described by the concept of a vocation to which a person was
called by God. In a secular society, the biblical meaning of a vocation has
little relevance. In its place, the concept "career" has evolved to
describe work as "a race...which affords opportunity for progress or
advancement in the world" (Oxford English Dictionary). With the erosion of
biblical language, new concepts and the modern life they describe fill the void.
According to Bellah, theologians and social scientists share some responsibility
for restoring the integrity of biblical language in everyday life. Cooperation
is possible because "theologian and secular intellectual can speak the same
language. Their tasks are different, but their conceptual framework is
shared." l5 The task of the theologian is to describe reality with biblical
language and to assert its truth. But according to Bellah, concepts constitute
reality when they are put into practice. The biblical principle should be
interpreted for modern life so it becomes part of a believer's lifestyle. This
task of interpretation is to be shared by the social scientist. The Problem of
Ambiguity Bellah suggests that, although current language is saturated with
terminology that is biblical in origin, the language of popular psychology
provides an alternative and often conflicting system of symbols. Consequently,
"the Biblical and the contemporary or psychological terminologies are
hopelessly confused, and it does not always seem that the Biblical discourse
carries the determining weight." l6 Conceptual ambiguity occurs when we
lose sight of this fact. Many believers blend, often irresponsibly and
unconsciously, language that is both biblical and modern. Biblical concepts such
as wisdom and vocation may be used interchangeably in the same text with the
modern concepts of information and career. Used out of context in this way, each
concept loses its proper meaning. When such concepts are treated as abstractions
with no clear referents, it is not always apparent they represent competing
worldviews. That is not to say that clear separation between biblical and modern
concepts is possible or even desirable. Living "in the world," we need
information and we need to understand which career concerns are appropriate. But
not being "of the world," the believer first needs to seek wisdom and
be guided by a calling. Our objective should be to understand how biblical
concepts are to be given priority and when modern concepts are to be used with
discrimination. Theologians and social scientists, together, can work toward
this objective. Sharing a conceptual framework supporting biblical and modern
language, they can establish principles to help the believer to be more
conscious of competing conceptual systems. They must also reach some agreement
on the interpretation of conceptual meanings and the application of them to
individual situations. The Hidden Threads Paradigm l7 When Bellah suggests that
theologians and social scientists share a common "conceptual
framework," he seems to imply two things. First, that some concepts have a
biblical meaning that is still appropriate today. Second, that social scientists
may share with theologians in the interpretation of that meaning in modern life.
Specifically, theologians may interpret the meaning of the concept then, while
social scientists may interpret its meaning now. It is this suggestion that
underlies the idea that there are "hidden threads" in scripture:
"Christian principles for social behavior in agreement with social
theory." l8 Such principles describe a reality found not only in scripture
but also in modern life and, especially, in the application of scripture to
modern life. Much of the study of hermeneutics, I'm suggesting, should center in
the description and analysis of these hidden thread The Dimension of Continuity
Modern life demands new language for the new experiences it generates. Either
new concepts must be developed to refer to these experiences or old concepts
must be adapted to describe them. Some experiences, however, are not unique to
modern life and have the same meaning they had in biblical times. These
experiences may be appropriately referred to by biblical concepts. The dimension
of continuity refers to the extent to which the meaning of an experience is or
is not limited to a particular culture. An experience lacks continuity if its
meaning is limited to a particular culture and could be referred to as
culture-bound. Another experience would have continuity if its meaning is not
limited to a particular culture. The modern experience of a work-life directed
only by the modern corporation or profession, for example, is culture-bound. It
has no continuity from biblical times and should be referred to as a career.
While the social scientist might interpret the meaning of such a modern
work-life, it would have no meaning for the theologian. But the experience of a
work-life which pursues "a task set by God" is not culture-bound. It
has continuity from biblical times and may be referred to as a calling. This
type of experience may be interpreted by the theologian as well as those social
scientists who accept the validity of such a work-life experience. At least
three questions must be asked to determine whether an experience may be referred
to with a hidden thread on the dimension of continuity. Does the experience have
a meaning bound by culture or not? If not, does the experience have a biblical
meaning that finds expression in modern life? If so, can the interpretation of
that meaning be shared by both theologian and social scientist? The Dimension of
Universality The dimension of universality refers to the concepts used to
describe experiences that are not culture-bound. Concepts are not universal if
they can only be used to describe the meaning of experiences that are
culture-bound. A concept that has universality cannot accurately describe the
meaning of an experience that lacks continuity and vice versa. The calling, for
example, is a universal concept that appropriately refers to "a task set by
God" as a work-life experience that is not culture-bound. It should not,
however, be used to refer to the modern work-life experience that is
culture-bound and best referred to as a career. Similarly, the concept of career
might best be reserved for a modern culture-bound experience and not one that is
continuous. Since a hidden thread is a concept that describes a
non-culture-bound experience, it is both continuous and universal. At the other
extreme is a concept that is neither continuous nor universal because it
appropriately describes a culture-bound experience. Between these two extremes
are two other types of concepts: those that are not continuous but are universal
and those that are continuous and not universal. Combined, these four types of
concepts describe a wide range of experiences found in the shift from a
traditional, biblically-based culture to one controlled by a modern world view.
Although these last two types of concepts are not our primary concern, they
offer intriguing questions for analysis. The "career missionsary," for
example, is a non-universal, continuous concept. It describes a process whereby
someone presumably called "to a task set by God" has made such a
calling a career. Does this concept point to possible motivational shifts in the
missionary's work-life or is the term merely an inappropriate use of the
concept. Similarly, the idea that one may be "called to a career"
(universal-non-continuous) raises other questions of motivation. Does the use of
such a phrase imply the socialization of some secular interests? Most hidden
threads are valued highly, especially by believers. Consequently, they may be
used rather loosely and without a clear referent. Joy is such a concept. As a
biblical concept, it refers to a sense of gladness in time of difficulty as one
has faith in God. But secularization in modern socierty has weakened this
meaning and the idea that gladness and difficulty might be found together is
gradually lost. In its place, the culture-bound concept of fun is used to
describe a form of happiness without seriousness. Gradually, fun becomes the
preferred concept to describe happiness in modern life. While joy may still be
used, it has lost much of the integrity of meaning it had as a biblical concept.
At least three questions must be asked to determine whether a concept qualifies
as a hidden thread on the dimension of universality. What is the inherent
meaning of the concept as developed in scripture? Does the concept refer to some
experience found in modern life? If so, can the meaning of that concept be
interpreted by both theologian and social scientist? In modern life, the
integrity found in a hidden thread and the experience it refers to should be
maintained as the concept is applied to daily living. The experience it refers
to should be described so it is faithful to the biblical meaning while losing
none of its usefulness in the modern world. In this way, hidden threads offer
biblical constants that may be used to measure and interpret those
inconsistencies in faith and practice found within the church as well as in the
world. Conclusion A major concern of this paper has been the current problem of
modernity and its erosion of biblical concepts. In l970, Bellah suggested that
"modernization itself is so endlessly subversive of every fixed position,
no matter how great an achievement it may have been originally." l9
Developing this subversion theme, Guinness notes the seductive quality of the
process of modernization: "Something new is assumed, something old is
abandoned, and everything else is adopted. In other words, what remains of
traditional (religious) beliefs andpractices is altered to fit the new
assumption." 20 At the same time, Hunter argues "that modernity is
inimical to traditional religious belief... Its symbols and its structure are
deeply contrary to religious, supernaturalistic presuppositions." 2l
Consequently, he predicts religion will either "seek to preserve its
religious heritage" or offer a bargaining creed as a compromise. l9 The
dilemma of the church involves plotting a careful course between these two
options of preserving and compromising. If the church is to maintain a viable
ministry in a rapidly changing world, it must avoid the traditional separated
approach while also avoiding the worldliness that comes from unwitting approval
of modernity's attractions. Without such avoidance, religion's cultural style
rather than its orthodoxy is likely to suffer as a syncretism of evangelical
faith and modernity emerges. 22 Looking for a wedge into this syncretism of
modernity and Christian orthodoxy, the argument has suggested that social
science and theology, together, may interpret those inherent truths found in
that conceptual framework shared by them. Basic to this conceptual framework,
hidden threads provide a link between a traditional world of religious meaning
and a modern world devoid of such meaning. Our culture needs an engagement of
scripture and social science, in which a tension must be both perceived and
maintained if any basis for applying biblical principles to modern life is to be
discovered. The church and the believer need to recognize this tension and deal
with it realistically if the hermeneutical task is to be pursued with
faithfulness and integrity.
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