Sunday, March 14, 2010

Should the World Set the Agenda for the Church?

In 1968, the World Council of Churches, meeting in Uppsala, Sweden adopted as its official slogan ,"The World Sets the Agenda". It was the heyday of the ecumenical movement and Christian organizations tripped over themselves to be noticed as "more relevant than thou."

In America, mainline Protestantism was unwittingly exercising its last hurrah as the chaplain of America. WCC member churches (largely made up of liberal Protestant denominations) had exercised significant influence in the civil rights movement. Now many were strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. Eventually many of its member churches already champions of contraception would go on to support abortion. After all, didn't Gloria Steinem call abortion rights the "sine qua non" of the women's movement.  I can almost remember the youth pastor at a downtown New Haven church with a coffehouse for Yale undergrads and street people saying: "Don't we want to reach out to the women's liberation movement and support the sisters in their struggle for reproductive rights?" The WCC seemed quick to baptise any movement with "liberation" in its mission statement.

The slogan, The World Sets the Agenda was, no doubt, intended to teach that the Church stands ready to serve the world. It was meant to signal that the Christian life was more than personal piety. But good intentions don't insure good directions. "The world sets the agenda" is a silly slogan full of theological mischief. That the WCC could adopt such a slogan tells us something of the confused state of mainline Protestantism at that time. It wasn't long before the WCC suffered embarassment on a large scale in America when Readers Digest (1982) discovered that the WCC had channeled funds to some violent revolutionary groups. I know some people have confused the visage of Che Guevara with that of Jesus.  But most people in the pew hadn't bargained on taking up collections for gun-toting Angolan or Latin American revolutionaries. This wasn't what they thought their pastor meant when he had spoken sympathetically about liberation theology.

The membership of the Catholic Church had its own problems resisting conformity to the world in many of the same areas. E.g., in 1968's Humane Vitae, Pope Paul VI refused to let the world set the agenda only to learn how many of his fellow Catholics were already taking their cues not from Christ but from Planned Parenthood.

When I say that Christ's kingdom, rather than the world, sets the agenda, I mean that our priorities ought to derive from the priorities of the Kingdom. How to understand the priorities of the Kingdom? That's for another post. For starters spend time this Lent with Raniero Cantalamessa's meditation The Beatitudes.

People are quite confused about the relationship between Christ and culture, church and world.  A quick way to begin structuring your thoughts on this big task and topic is to use a threefold distinction.
  • Should we accomodate to the world?
  • Should we reject the world?
  • Or should we engage the world with the aim of transforming the world. 
Dr. Eduardo Echeverria at Sacred Heart Major Seminary has written a fine little booklet dealing with Christ and culture and the new evangelization entitled Slitting the Sycamore

The watershed book in Protestant social ethics, however, is still H.R. Niebuhr's Christ and Culture. First published in 1956, it's five categories (the Christ of culture, Christ against culture, Christ and culture in paradox, Christ above culture and Christ transforming culture) remain touchstones for any serious discussion.

It's been subject to all kinds of worthwhile criticism (Whose Christ? whose culture? Is that really Thomas' position? Are Anabaptists really 'against' culture or do they simply define culture differently? Can't one be against the culture for the sake of the culture?) yet remains the single most important Protestant work in English. There is no single Catholic work which has such widespread influence in English. Gaudium et spes from the Second Vatican Council has been the undisputed major influence on Catholic thinking about Christ and culture over the last forty years.  It is, however, an altogether different document with a different purpose than Niebuhr's. Niebuhr's work was descriptive and historical; Gaudium et spes is prescriptive and exhortatory.

Some Christians end up letting the world set the agenda by accomodation to its priorities (liberal Protestantism). Others end up letting the word set the agenda by living in reaction to the world (fundamentalist Protestantism). In both cases, the world is setting the agenda. In contrast, the Catholic faith engages the world rather than accomodate to it or react to it.  I think its pretty clear that Christian institution should strive tnot to conform to the world but to Christ whose kingdom is not of this world.

Over the next week I'll be broadcasting from Ave Maria University in the Town of Ave Maria, Florida This is one of the boldest experiments in Catholic culture in modern times.  I've had the great honor of watching it unfold from its conception. Many of its professors and administrators have been guests on Kresta in the Afternoon and more than a few I count as personal friends. Thomas Monaghan, founder of AMU, the man who made it possible for me to do Catholic radio, wasn't just interested in starting an institute of higher education. He wanted to make more and better Catholics. He was and is interested in transformation, first of all, in the lives of those students attending but also in the communities, the industries, the churches, the families, the businesses in which they will eventually serve.

Author, scholar and Templeton Prize winner for progress in religion, Michael Novak recently wrote of his experience teaching at Ave Maria University.

"I have never lived in a more Catholic culture than Ave Maria’s — well, maybe once before, in St. Pius X Seminary during my college years at Stonehill College. From my room on the Piazza to the Oratory, embraced by the Piazza like a horseshoe, the distance was about 75 yards, and to the Adoration Chapel on the side of the Canizaro Library, 100 yards. All day and all night, students and staff are found in the latter according to formal voluntary shifts, and as the Spirit moves a steady trickle all day. On Sundays, some 97 percent of the whole town goes to Mass, and on weekdays about 65 percent of the students.

"What most impressed me, though, was what Dostoevsky called the “humble charity” of those one meets — the good manners, the willingness to help and even to seek occasions to help. One of the storeowners came out on the sidewalk to ask if she could bring me food or other things from Publix on her trip later that afternoon; two days later, she stopped at Walgreens in nearby Naples for a prescription I needed.

"The Board of Trustees (of whom I am one) do not wish Ave Maria to be a small Christian enclave, a hothouse, but a large, cosmopolitan university, ultimately the size of Princeton." 
Please read all that Michael wrote and visit the website.  I think you'll find it greatly encouraging.

So take heart, we are living at a time when American Catholics have never had such great opportunity to proclaim the transforming gospel of Jesus Christ in word and deed. Our nation needs us to be faithful witnesses if we are to be good citizens. Only by strengthening Christ's Church will we be able to demonstrate a "more excellent way" as St. Paul opens 1 Cor 13. In a society and an ecclesial community which often regard fidelity as a pretext for lazy-minded conformity to the status quo, faithful Catholics have the opportunity of creatively pointing to the kingdom which has been inaugurated but whose fulfillment we await. Ave Maria University is one more Kingdom sign of Catholic vitality in the new millennium.

Today, we live between the already and the not yet. Christ has already come. His Kingdom has begun. He is yet to come and His Kingdom is yet to be. In between the 'already' and the 'not yet' stands the Church rooted in eternity but flowering in time. The world doesn't set our agenda but it is the world's inhabitants for whom Christ died. We may be called to lay down our lives for the world but we aren't expected to make excuses for its rebellion against God or accomodate the apostolic tradition to a contrary way of life.

“The consummated Kingdom is now present in the world as really as the harvest is present in the sown field. How the growth takes place and when it will come to full fruition- these are questions which the sower cannot answer. These are God’s affair. But that heavenly forces, as real as the mysterious forces of nature are already at work in the world, moving inevitably to the great consummation – of that Jesus had no doubt whatever. The Kingdom is a present reality working toward a future consummation” (T.W. Manson, The Sayings of Jesus, (1949) p. 305).

During the present age, Christ's Kingdom is most tangibly present in the Eucharist. "[F]or the early Fathers it [Eucharist‘] was the key word giving unity and meaning to all the 'elements' of the liturgy. … Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. Eucharist is the life of paradise. Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God's creation, redemption and gift of heaven. But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In Him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven. He alone is the perfect Eucharistic Being. He is the Eucharist of the world. In and through the Eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be. … The Eucharist of Christ and Christ the Eucharist is the 'breakthrough' that brings us to the table in the Kingdom, raises us to heaven, and makes us partakers of the divine food. For eucharist––thanksgiving and praise––is the very form and content of the new life that God granted us when in Christ He reconciled us with Himself. The reconciliation, the forgiveness, the power of life––all this has its purpose and fulfillment in this new state of being, this new style of life which is Eucharist, the only real life of creation with God and in God, the only true relationship between God and the world."–– (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World [Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1973], pp. 34, 37–39).

Timothy Larsen in Books and Culture makes a few observations on these topics in his review of Hugh McLeod's The Religious Crisis of the 1960s.  "[A]ll the churches that continued to grow [from the sixties on to today] happened to be theologically conservative...(It might even have had something to do with them not letting the world set their agenda.)

Larsen contrasts the growing theologically conservative evangelical and Pentecostal denominations with the declining mainline liberal Protestant denominations such as The Episcopal Church U.S.A., the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. It's a phenomenon frequently studied and noticed at least since Dean Kelley's Why Conservative Churches are Growing first published in 1972. See also Thomas Reeves The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity who made his case a few years ago on Kresta in the Afternoon.

Larsen also notes: "The other main theologically conservative option, the Roman Catholic Church, took on some prize fights in the 1960s and hemorrhaged active members. A lot of the Catholic progressives seemed to want to be Protestants. Many of their proposed reforms read like a championing of the priesthood of all believers. And what could be more Lutheran than the recurring stunt of a priest marrying a former nun?

"The Catholic Church's ban on the use of birth control products was formally under review for several years. Many lay people assumed that this would lead to its being overturned and started to live" [as such]. "When the pope surprisingly reaffirmed the ban in 1968, many Catholics became estranged from the Church. Likewise, young liberal or mainline Protestants tended to identify so strongly with the heady social and political movements of the period that the latter eventually became their surrogate church. In contrast to these two groups, 'Conservative branches of Protestantism weathered the storm more effectively.'" 

Catholics haven't tanked out though. A recent survey of religious preferences identified former Catholics as the third largest bloc behind Catholics and Southern Baptists. Nevertheless, the Catholic percentage of the U.S. has remained pretty steady. Those leaving have been replaced by "converts" to the Catholic Church and, I'd like to think, by "reverts" like myself, Frank Beckwith, Jeff Cavins, and Teresa Tomeo,  but even more so by the "disproportionately high numbers of Catholics among recent immigrants to the United States."

The Protestant churches that best weathered the storm were those that didn't accomodate their beliefs to the world's changes in social mores. They grew because they remained faithful to what they understood to be divine revelation and thereby had a message for the world that wasn't redundant or a mere echo of Planned Parenthood, the anti-war movement, M.A.S.H., Harvard Business School, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Robert Ringer's Looking Out For Number One.

As Niebuhr parodied the false gospel of liberalism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Evangelical Protestants rejected such emptiness. They retained a distinct Christian identity and refused to conform to intellectual and cultural trends that contradicted Scripture. While the Catholic Church's teaching authority hasn't gone chasing after cultural approval or the latest fads, yet many Catholic laity, theologians and some clergy certainly have seemed ashamed to stand up for those aspects of our teaching which challenge, annoy, and displease the world.

Theologically conservative Protestant churches grew because they knew that the Church set the agenda for the world not the other way around. The Catholic Church has the promise of fidelity to the end; it's personnel, however, need to be exhorted to remain firm in the face of growing conflict with our society's newly invented morality and abandonment of natural law. We love the world best when we adhere to its Creator most faithfully. We are most humane and compassionate when we are willing to tell and do the truth in love in spite of cultural opposition.

Os Guiness, in The Last Christian on Earth, reminds us that we are most vulnerable not from outside enemies but from those within.
"The renewal and reformation of the Western Church, or judgment and destruction? In our advanced modern setting, this choice constitutes an awesome challenge, and the outcome will depend partly on each of us. For the fact is that our real enemy today is not secularism, not humanism, not Marxism, and not postmodernism. It is not Islam, or any of the great religious rivals to the Christian gospel. It is not even modernization. It is ourselves. We who are Western Christians are simply a special case of a universal human condition to which Pascal pointed earlier, “Jesus Christ comes to tell men that they have no enemies but themselves.” Or as it has been put more recently, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”
The world exerts pressure to squeeze us into its mold but "Christian truth is finally irreducible and intractable, and it is here, in the inescapable tension of its being "in" but not "of" the world, that the possibility of some future judgment or liberation lies...What is the secret of the Christian faith's capacity to survive repeated periods of cultural captivity? On the one hand, it has in God's Word, an authority that stands higher than history, a judgment that is ultimately irreducible to any generation and culture. On the other hand, it has in its notion of sin and repentance a doctrine of its own failure, which can be the wellspring of its ongoing self criticism and renewal."

As G.K. Chesterton quipped: "At least five times the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases, it was the dog that died."  Be not afraid, trust in God.

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