Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why Christians Don't Need Institutions in Order to Screw Up

In an earlier post we looked at Lesslie Newbigin's contention that denominational institutions are a particular kind of anti-sacrament. An odd thing, maybe, for a Protestant to contend, but the idea that schism is bad is not new, either.  What IS new is Newbigin's subsequent contention that a) institutions AND b) unaffiliated individuals (oftentimes perceived as the opposite or alternative of institutions) ironically share the same doomed trust in the prevailing secular ideology that relegates spirituality to the purely private sphere.  This insight should challenge anti-institutional folks to nuance their surface critiques and look for real and developed alternatives of hope.

Plainly, Newbigin believes he has discovered the flaw that makes institutions worthy of suspicion, and it happens to be the same flaw that those not committed to institutions often make.  Such a revelation is vitally important to explore since the goal is the flourishing of the Church's mission and eliminating an identified challenge is not the same as constructing a positive solution.  

Not surprisingly, Newbigin believes this hope has as its source the Gospel of Christ, and especially here he makes an appeal to reclaiming a "true apocalyptic".  Notice what is happening: the flaw is no longer the mere existence of institutions (a clumsy thing to blame since institutions refer to people working together in any kind of organized way) but is now located in how we relate and respond to the action of the living God - the hope we have in Christ.  Here is Newbigin:

There can be no missionary encounter with our culture without a biblically grounded eschatology, without recovering a true apocalyptic.  The dichotomy that runs through our culture between the private and the public worlds is reflected in the dissolution of the biblical vision of the last things into two separate and unrelated forms of hope.  One is the public hope for a better world in the future, the heavenly city of the eighteenth-century French philosophers, the utopia of the evolutionary social planners, or the classless society of the revolutionary sociologists.  The other is the private hope for personal immortality in a blessed world beyond this one.  This dissolution is tragic.  It destroys the integrity of the human person.  If I pin my hope to a perfect word that is to be prepared for some future generations, I know that I and my contemporaries will never live to see it, and therefore that those now living can be - and if necessary must be - sacrificed in the interests of those as yet unborn; and so the way is open for the ruthless logic of totalitarian planners and social engineers.  If on the other hand I place all my hope in a personal future, I am tempted to wash my hands of responsibility for the public life of the word and to turn inwards towards a purely private spirituality.

That tragic split runs right through our lives and our society, and only the biblical understanding of the last things can heal that dichotomy.  The apocalyptic teaching that forms such an important part of the New Testament has generally in our culture been pushed to the margins of Christian thought.  It has been treasured, of course, by small oppressed groups on the margins of our society, but it has been generally silenced in the mainstream of our established Christianity.  Essentially this says to us: If I ask what in all my active life is the horizon of my expectations, the thing to which I look forward, the answer, it seems to me, cannot be some future utopia in the future and cannot be some personal bliss for myself, it can only be, quite simply, the coming of Jesus to complete his Father's will.  He shall come again.  He is the horizon of my expectations.  Everything from my side, whether prayer or action, private or public, is done to him and for him.  It is simply offered for his use.  In the words of Schweitzer, it is an 'acted prayer for His coming.'  He will make of it what he will.  My vigorous and righteous actions do not build the holy city.  They are too shot through with sin for that.  But they are acted prayers that he will give the holy city.  And that embraces both the public and the private world.  The holy city, as its name indicates, is on the one hand the crown and perfection of all that we call civilization.  Into it the kinds of the nations bring their cultural treasures.  But it is also the place where every tear is wiped from our eyes and we are the beloved children of God who see him face to face.  Only in that vision and hope is the tragic dichotomy of our culture healed.

2 comments:

  1. “Such a revelation is vitally important to explore since the goal is the flourishing of the Church's mission and eliminating an identified challenge is not the same as constructing a positive solution.”

    I have to read this book. We live in an individualistic culture. And now we have institutions that try to cater to that individualistic culture. So in fact they are both flawed because we are designed to Love the Lord our God with all our heart, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

    So now our churches are designed to love the way we keep the machine going, and then love the Lord, we are not sure about the neighbors.

    "and so the way is open for the ruthless logic of totalitarian planners and social engineers.  If on the other hand I place all my hope in a personal future, I am tempted to wash my hands of responsibility for the public life of the word and to turn inwards towards a purely private spirituality."

    Individualistic. That's the reason the institution becomes bigger than our God, and that's the reason why our own private spirituality becomes bigger than our neighbor.

    In my opinion the mission of the church is to Love the Lord your God with all your life, and love your neighbor as yourself, you can't have one without the other. So you have an institution that allows you to love God on a personal level good, and you go home and don't care for your neighbors or share life and suffering with them, then you are wrong.

    On the other hand, you love the heck out of your neighbors, care for the homeless, widows, orphans; but you keep God to yourself. Then you are wrong.

    The institution is a conduit. Without it we would lack the knowledge of God to know Him. We should go once a week, get the knowledge, and head out into the World, loving on our neighbors as Jesus would, and proclaiming his name in a way that they have never heard it. Those people who live around us and we encounter outside of church are just as important as the ones we see inside. God loves them just the same. And they need to know that they are worthy of His love, and that is it.

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  2. Amen! Good word, Bryce (that I only now saw you posted - sorry!). Amazing to me how much of Newbigin speaks to the challenges you and I have wrestled with for a long time now.

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