I have spent most of my spiritual discernment around the relationship of Christ and culture. It must have started long before my bold request of the church council to play guitars in church as a twelve-year-old. Was it questioning my grandmother’s understanding that getting sick is a result of our sin? Was it wondering about the very children we were praying for in Africa and India … if they weren’t baptized, but died of hunger, how could God refuse them entry into the Kingdom of Heaven? Was it being called to the pastoral ministry when only people labeled “boy” at birth were permitted to teach or preach? Music style and worship. Gender and church leadership. Maybe the questions were born in me. Maybe they were a product of growing up in a changing Long Island neighborhood in the 1960’s and ’70s. Clearly it was my nod to a growing disestablishment of cultural class, race, gender expectations, and institutional authority. At the core of my being, though, there is always a connection to a God who cannot be changed. Who is bigger and wiser than all of my questions. A God who is active and loving. A God who is both a part of and distinct from our social and cultural institutions.
Every decade brought a new set of cultural vs. traditional religious battles. Sex, Gender roles, ordination, marriage, divorce, church music, appropriate dress in worship, appropriate use of media and technology in worship …
In the year 2000, I took a mission study trip to China. We were tourists who were able to visit with church leaders. We visited congregations and talked with religious and cultural leaders and academics. Before I left, I was eager to experience an old, yet emerging Christianity amid a culture very different from our own Euro-centric expression of faith. Yet, I found Chinese Christians singing old Irish and English hymns and arguing among themselves that Chinese hymns were not “Christian.” There was cynical speculation arising within my thoughts … were these Christians really finding Christ? or were they more enamored with western culture and rising against the cultural revolution of communism? To be sure, the Holy Spirit is alive and well in China, but we have to understand there is always a mixture of motive in the evangelical movement.
And now, as the United States Supreme Court rules state laws limiting marriage to people of the opposite sex unconstitutional, we are again having an opportunity to sift through scripture and separate Truth that transcends culture and the cultural trappings of that truth. In fact, the biggest news items in the American media these past few weeks focus on the broadening of social and cultural constructs such as gender, marriage, sexual identity, race. All of these were, at one time, fixed definitions. Yet both scientific and sociological research and human experience indicate that these definitions are fluid and broadening … they are now more social construct than biology.
To ask, is this good or bad, is to be limited by the binary, dualistic thinking that is the heart of conflict in our world. It’s time we stepped up from the either/or, good/bad, black/white, male/female, slave/free, saved/damned, right/wrong dichotomies of what the 12-step movement calls stinkin’ thinkin’. It’s time we embrace the both/and realities of life in this millennium. This requires a willingness to step out with Christ into radical empathy, radical compassion, and radical hospitality. It requires a trust and faith that allows us to step away from the assumptions we hold dear about our place in the world and God’s place with us and question them. We need to be able to embrace an understanding of scripture that is more than a rule of life, but a growing and living relationship between God and humanity that embraces change.
There will always be a tension in our discernment of Christ between the preservation of Truth and the in-breaking of the Kingdom. That’s how we both grow and remain steadfast in Christ. We need to think and challenge each other, but we also need to let go of our human understandings and make room for the “peace that passes understanding.”
This is a time, my friends, that we need to step away from arguing and debating and step into dialogue and wondering together. We need to imagine new ways, let go of old paradigms, and seek the underlying principles of Christ. We need to stop fighting cultural changes and instead infuse them with a core of justice and love. We need to stop complaining that Christians are losing our place of influence in American society and instead claim our place within ourselves, our friendships, our families, our neighborhoods, our cities, our living in such a way that people SEE Christ in us.
My call has consistently been to question cultural assumptions in the light of Christ. I have been doing it for as long as I can remember. And every time I do, I find that I don’t lose my faith, I strengthen it. My understanding of Truth and Life expands both deeper and broader; my ability to love God and love others grows exponentially.
Writing about fluidity and change, I have been hearing the old hymn singing within me:
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.
My discernment of of Christ and culture has focused on the rock. I have been willing to brush away the sands of human structure to better see the foundation of Christ. Every challenge we face in life, gives us the opportunity to better uncover that “rock” of Christ. That rock is not about our cultural understandings or doctrinal interpretations; rather the rock IS Christ. The rock is the hope that God is constantly at work both renewing and redeeming. The rock is the foundation that supports the cultural framework we build to give shape to the fluidity of life, but the rock is NOT those frameworks or those shapes. We are living in a time when our frameworks are being deconstructed; new ones will be built, but the new ones will not be any more “holy” or “sanctioned by God” than the old ones. What is holy? What is sanctioned? Hope, Faith, Love and the greatest of these is love.