Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Mission Shaped Church?

I have written little to nothing on this, but am prompted by Jody Stowell producing an essay displayed at Fulcrum. Also it happens to be worthy of some attention because it is not sex-obsessed, as is so much these days that comes from evangelical camps and which is causing an internal and spreading rot. Jody herself is someone who has come out of a Conservative Evangelical setting, and it is always interesting to read people in the process of broadening out. Plus, as a selected ordinand, she is showing some sociological ambivalence in reference group behaviour - conforming to a group of people that she will join rather than the people she has been with (Robert K. Merton (1968 [1949]), Social Theory and Social Structure, New York: The Free Press - as relates to work on The American Soldier: Stouffer, Samuel A., Lazarsfeld, Paul F. (1950), Continuities in Social Research: Studies in Scope and Method of 'The American Soldier', New York: The Free Press.)

The essay seems to be this, that God is a Trinity and relates to its own variety and so the Church should be varied; this God gets involved in the world and is a God of mission and so any church is not a church unless it has and does mission; the Church should relate to the cultural context with a danger of syncretism but given all stated it will be variable in its outreach and thus both traditional and fresh in a 'mixed economy'. Hints of Rowan Williams in her "ambivalence", me thinks.

I think this idea of the God of the Trinity and therefore variety is no more than use of a metaphor and not a particularly descriptive or robust one. I could give another. The Church could be like the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva: God the creator, sustainer and destroyer/ renewer, and so the metaphor here would be the Church being of the originally created and the continually created, sustaining what is created and good, and getting rid of what is to be removed so that new can come. It's a good model of the Church as a dynamic renewing activity but relates to an inappropriate source for the metaphor. The Christian Trinity is less giving than this in metaphor. A better use of Trinity is that of relationship, but you cannot overemphasise difference and otherness in the Christian Trinity. It is not a very good giver of metaphors.

I personally think that this ongoing use of the Trinity to give metaphors for other activity is being done as a way to shore up the Trinity that is in trouble as a concept-in-itself.

Obviously the Church as a continuance of something seen forming in the New Testament must include outreach, both in terms of bringing people in and in relating to the poor and offering assistance. The New Testament (and non-canonical books) would also be a source of connection for diversity and different stresses.

The issue of Church and culture is a complex one. Ernst Troeltsch saw that the Church and its message worked best when the culture gave the message and the widespread institution obvious support. At the same time the New Testament also shows sect types, and they continued popping up throughout Christendom. Now there has been this shift of culture to secularisation and pluralism, which leaves the old absorbing and welcoming Church-type somewhat adrift. There is a third type of individualist intellectuals, which Troeltsch named as mysticism: today these would be liberal, theological, joining together on their own discerning terms. I am one of these, and Jody might be (or become one).

A sect type may be defensive, but may also go out to get people out of the culture and into its setting and over a high entry barrier in terms of confessions of belief. The Church type can never wholly relate to the culture, because it would be just syncretistic, but even then it still would not be the old Church because people do not relate to that any more. That's where the shift to mysticism happens: an open institution for people to gather with their religion is not a Church any more but is individualist and highly varied: mysticism as Troeltsch so badly named it. The denomination was a half way house, but now has lost its trade-off place and role: that anything with a disctinctive belief is really a sect of one kind or another in this Western culture, it's just varieties of sects now or pockets of individualism, and there may be a trade-off between these.

The question of culture relates to the religious message being transmitted. You ask how much of it is essential and how much is cultural. Western Buddhism has done this, as in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. It identifies the essentials of Buddhism as Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, that is the Buddha as the teacher, the Dharma as the practice of the Buddhist way and the community as Sangha - though this has been reinterpreted as non-monastic, that the Western Buddhist Order is itself in the community. Beliefs like reincarnation are not essential: beliefs come about as the practice takes place (practice being the essential). So Tibetan Buddhism is seen as highly cultural but not Western cultural. Yet, at the same time, this leaner and more Western friendly Buddhism also challenges Western materialism and lack of serious focus.

In other words, for something to be culturally relevant does not mean simply to be swamped by it but to turn that around to challenge the culture itself. Now Christianity has been Western from the off, with Greek-thought logical concepts such as, say, the Trinity. So many churches look like variations of Roman basilicas, the the bishops wear purple. Anglican liturgy is a Western cultural history of its own: yet it can use these to make an ethical challenge to society. It can do this in a variety of ways, from the messages contained therein through to the quality of the handling of these cultural elements (the glory of God argument through high quality performance).

Much of that though, in form and words, is becoming subcultural in the present and only of Western culture that was. This is implied in all the postmodern expressions including the post-evangelical that stands at the core of fresh expressions. There is the idea that you can use the new Western culture, that is change the wrapping paper while leaving the same goodies inside.

But postmodernism is not so friendly regarding distinctions between the wrapping paper and the goodies inside. It turns out that the gift inside is wrapping paper. This is one reason why the Pope last year said you cannot go behind the Greek culture and presentation to get to some essence, as Adolf von Harnack had tried. In the end, you get a last days rabbi with an ethical twist. Fine if that is what you want, but it's a form of Judaism. So many evangelicals today actually promote Paulianity, but the issue is whether it is a form of wrapping paper, and if not aren't there two saviours say - Jesus and Paul. If you can have a religion about Jesus, can you not have one about Paul, and isn't that not what is happening?

What I see with religious activities in various settings is this: that, whilst we may discuss and use the Christian tradition as means to conversation, people are remarkably varied in their beliefs and discussions can go anywhere. The issue then becomes one of regulation, which is awkward to maintain outside of traditional basilica like settings and activities. That box is a sort of regulator already. So the more the expression is fresh, the more likely is a syncretism, because people today have a whole variety of beliefs and longings.

My own stance is just to facilitate those. There might be a Christian equivalent of Godhead, practice and community that equates to the Buddhist Three Jewels, but Christianity has a legacy of beliefs that secularity and rationality undermines, which is not the same impact as felt with an orthopraxy such as Buddhism.


jody said...

hey adrian, i'll reply on my blog comments

thanks for the cartoon! high praise :-)

blessings, jody

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Remember that clicking on a picture reveals the full size of the picture, and people are free to use what I draw.