Listening to a recent podcast left me thinking about pendulums. Tony Jones traveled to Denmark and Norway and was doing an interview turned podcast. During his introduction he noted the differences in the cultural relationship between church and state in Norway. Tony noted the difference between a social democracy and a liberal democracy. For instance in Norway the Lutheran Church is the State church. But in the United States there is no State church. The comparison helped crystallize something I have been thinking for some time. In fact, David and I were talking about this very thing a couple of weeks ago and the thoughts made their way into the sermon this past Sunday, the sixth Sunday of Easter.
Our particular denomination, during my formative years educationally and in terms of training, spent an inordinate amount of time with comparisons. Leaders regularly warned of the slippery trajectory taken by “other” denominations once making “liberal” concessions. Since we take great pains with local church autonomy and priesthood of believers, the rallying cry intended to attract the attention of individuals (churches and pastors) to join the movement keeping from leftward drift. This post is not about the particular doctrinal moves many suggested would lead to liberalism. Instead, this post intends to suggest we need to be honest about our particular spectrum as the pendulum inevitably swings and we worry about slippery slopes.
I recall as a young boy being fascinated by a pendulum at a relatives house. It was a conversation piece rather than an educational illustration. A number of steel balls hung by thin rope or wire. Once these oversized marbles were set in motion they would swing back and forth in typical pendulum fashion. Interestingly one could take a couple of these steel balls and set them in motion and they would strike the remaining balls propelling those on the other end swinging them until they reached the end of their tether before falling back to strike those in the middle yet again. In their resting position these marbles hung in a rather narrow spectrum.
Utilizing this fascination as a child has helped me in grappling with the always conservative-liberal schism that marks many a denomination in the United States and left me somewhat bemused. If you will allow me. One could argue, and I am, the spectrum represented by the resting position of these steel marbles is the context of life in the Unites States – our context. Though spread across a rather narrow spectrum these marbles represent a liberal democracy – one in which our early cries were, “No taxation without representation.” Boston Tea Parties broke out as individuals longed for freedoms. Expressed in the rugged individualism that marked frontiers-people, the fuel for a liberal democracy was self-determination. Over time we developed a healthy appetite for personal pursuits in keeping with our understanding of inalienable rights – life, liberty, property, the pursuit of happiness.
Religiously, our appetites firmly focused on the individual, leaders set out to free a person from sin, death and hell. Certainly these shackles keep us from healthy relationships with God, self, others and the world. (Scot McKnight’s, A Community Called Atonement wonderfully walks through our condition.) We tended to stop in our calls for conversion to those acute to the self. Experiencing new creation in relationship to others and the world was chiefly secondary. Often only used as guilt mechanisms for the first order matter of personal salvation. (Lest the reader think I am averse to talk of personal salvation, I am not. But I do believe the atonement reaches farther than me.)
Along the way in our liberal democracy we witnessed something of a social Darwinism where the fittest survived, faring much better than others. From the fringes, remember the illustration of the steel balls, some began to “swing” as it were further from the center of the spectrum. Reaching for a means to live out the care for others represented a stretch in a context thoroughly bent to liberate the individual. If you have the metaphor of the pendulum still in mind, you may quickly see just how the bumping of these extremes of those in the center results in those on the other extreme swinging wildly in the other direction. More simply put, movements tending toward the social were met by those calling for a greater push for the individual. So while Rauschenbush is pressing one extreme, according to some, Fundamentalists are pressing the other. As you can imagine the marbles in the middle become black and blue from the incessant bantering on the edges. The middle is not a safe place in these kinds of schisms – no one cares to allow them space. Just listen carefully to the political banter this election season.
The amusing thoughts I have is that cries of liberalism from conservatives is funny when on this particular spectrum we are all liberals. Back to Tony Jones’ interview. A social democracy is a far different context. I recently read where John MacArthur claimed no room for contextualization. Andrew Jones adequately challenged this silly notion (and part 2 here). Contextualization often requires an acknowledgment of one’s own extremes – one’s own slippery slope. In this case we have fallen and more often than not fail to get up. The missing link is the living out of the second commandment. Often met in our Country with, “Why should we worry about those people.” In fact, I would sadly suggest heard quite often in the confines of many churches – occasionally my own. When we do worry about them it is often not as real persons but projects to assist to new individual liberation – personal freedom. This may well explain our difficult with building community – it is counter-cultural. Always worrying about the self leaves little time in a complex competitive culture for caring for others.
The Emergent/emerging church, missional church movement(s) do seem to want to fill in the counter cultural piece lost by the fall of the slippery slope into extremism that marks the extreme conservativisms of the day. Too many quickly dismiss them out of hand. Instead, it may well be the needed prophetic voices calling out to a church in cultural captivity committed to an over-realized individualism inviting it to experience the kind of community Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of in Life Together,
But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. “If I die, then I am not alone in death; if I suffer they [the fellowship] suffer with me” (Luther). from Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer quoted from A Guide to Prayer.
I have read Life Together and highly recommend it.