Pendulum swings are a necessary part of theological discourse. It is only natural that at times we find ourselves out of balance in a particular area and so we course-correct. What often happens is because we have been so out of kilter in a given direction we don’t really know how hard to push the pendulum to get it back in the middle so we overshoot.
We see this with Jesus and the Pharisees. The Pharisees had course-corrected on purity as a reaction to the Hellenization (read paganization) of Israel by the Ptolemys, Greeks and Romans. Jesus constantly tried to temper their discussions of ritual purity with real purity and balancing grace and truth. Jesus knew just how hard to push the pendulum.
One of the most important things Christianity has discovered as Western civilization has secularized and correspondingly become less Christian is that we have to begin understanding our culture and contextualize our ministry. We learned this from missionaries overseas when we very quickly figured out that the growing number of “unchurched” or non-believers was growing here in the United States.
In learning our culture there were some important values that we picked up along the way. We learned to value inclusion. We learned better empathy and increased our capacity to see things from other vantage points and perspectives. We also picked up on a more humble epistemology (a phrase Randy Harris uses that works well here) as we began to recognize our own inability to see things as objectively as we once thought we did. We also began to value individual self-determination (I know that is redundant but it is an important way to say it).
These are all good things. They were and still are needed counterbalances to much of what got Christianity out of whack (a good technical theological phrase – I love being precise like that). The only issue is if we swing the pendulum so far that we begin impinging upon other Christian values and priorities of our faith. I see that happening today and it is concerning.
We value inclusion. That is good. We need to welcome more people than we used to. We need this on many levels. People need a place where they belong. And yet part of the particularity of the Christian faith is that at some point there are things that go along with be-longing. There are obligations, standards and expectations that aren’t man-made but derived from scripture (which is another issue for another day).
We value empathy and a capacity to see things from the perspective of someone else (at least in theory). This is a worthy thing to attempt. We can be hypocritical and blind on the other end of the pendulum…becoming so myopic that other people are only a shell of their real selves. At the other extreme, empathy can make it difficult for us to establish our own identity and position – a healthy self-differentiation. If we aren’t careful, our constant search for seeing things from a myriad of perspectives can be a hindrance. In our attempt to see things clearly we fail to see things clearly.
Then there is epistemological humility – the idea that we need to be humble in our conclusions. That is true. There is always more to learn. There are always things we fail to consider. Arrogance won’t cut it. Humility is a virtue. But we can humble ourselves into not believing much of anything…where our humility pushes out truth because we don’t want to assert (as if truth is tied inextricably to pride) that our view is correct.
Or how about the value of individual self-identification. That is big in our world today so much so that even gender is now finding itself under this microscope. If someone claims to be a Christian who are we to question it? The individual decides their identity. The community has nothing to do with whether or not their opinion of themselves is in line with the definition of the community.
That is the culture of today but should it be the culture of the church? Must we always agree? Do we let them work it out between them and the Lord or does the community of faith have anything to do with this sort of thing? I realize it is a dangerous job and while we haven’t be tasked with is FINAL judgment (as in when you get to the judgment day Matt Dabbs won’t be pronouncing a sentence upon you) but at the same time there are judgments that the church is called to make and it has been that way for millennia…that is, until the culture changed and the church followed in lock-step.
In all of these areas it is so easy for us to overshoot. It is easy to overshoot in all of these areas because the shifts were so needed that the temptation is to just keep running like Forrest Gump scoring a touchdown or Michael Orr getting a block in Blindside…run far enough and eventually you cross a line you never intended to cross or maybe never considered was there.
Pendulums love to swing. They don’t like to sit still. Like some novelty in a cracker barrel gift shop still pendulums are a temptation to every passerby to give it a swing and no one seems to know just how far to push or in what direction. If you aren’t careful it will wack you in the head on its way back by.
Last is scripture. What I am seeing more and more is culture trumping scripture. That is harder to tease apart that one might think but I have seen it enough and even tried to do it myself enough to become familiar with it. That is a dangerous game. Let us keep coming back to scripture and hold everything up to the filter we find there and see what shakes out. Let us be culturally familiar and culturally engaged and let us be in line with culture anywhere doing so doesn’t violate our scriptural priorities and mandates. This takes wisdom and we will undoubtedly mess it up but it is worth the effort.