Returning to the 1920s and 1930s, the conservative wing of Christianity took a very different path. Having become pessimistic about influencing culture, conservative Christians came to see themselves as lifeboats, plucking individual sinners from the waters of world that was doomed to destruction. Preservation of the “truth” of scripture and proclamation of the gospel to “save souls” became the only agenda. Why engage in dialog when the world we live in is slated for destruction? The world needs salvation not conversation.
Consequently, every human endeavor served one essential purpose. They were platforms for evangelization. All resources available to a Christian should be marshaled toward this end. Stewardship was equated to giving of your resources to finance evangelistic efforts. Business, politics and other “worldly” pursuits were distractions except insofar as they provided a venue for saving lost souls or financing evangelism.
Another considerable influence within Evangelical, conservative and fundamentalist communities, was an eschatology deeply influenced by dispensationalism. Dispensationalism maintains that at some unknown moment believers’ souls will be “raptured” from their bodies (a dualistic split between spirit and matter) into heaven, unleashing a series of ominous events that culminates in the obliteration of the material world. The faithful then go to live with God in heaven as spirits for eternity. This is a significant departure from the historical Christian view where God descends to earth to be with humanity for eternity in the material world of the New Jerusalem. As a consequence of this theology, and believing these events are coming sooner rather than later, there has been a strong tendency to see the material world as valueless and inconsequential. The powerlessness felt in the perceived rejection of traditional faith by major ecclesiastical bodies, and the growing political and economic crises extending from the beginning of World War I in 1914 to the end World War II in 1945, made the soil fertile in more conservative communities for sprouting such visions of a rapidly approaching otherworldly deliverance.
Also at work in this milieu was a powerful common sense anti-intellectualism. Intellectualism was often identified as the culprit that led folks away from a common sense “plain literal reading” of the Bible. Furthermore, what was the point of studying law, economics, and politics since these had no practical application to evangelism and they studied management of a world that was doomed. For many, a more worthwhile actibvity was to comb through the scriptures and develop elaborate theories about end-time prophecies. The continued fascination with this quest for secret knowledge is evidenced in everything from the massively popular Left Behind series to The Da Vinici Code.
This is not to say that all of conservative Christianity and Evangelicalism was thoroughly entrenched in this thinking. People like Carl F. Henry sensed a need for conservative Christianity to confront the problems of the world. He founded Christianity Today as a tool to promote that discussion. The cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, especially around political issues like the elimination of school prayers and legalization of abortion, motivated a host of Evangelical Christians to change their tune about involvement in the world. The election year of 1976 was called the year of the Evangelical because Jimmy Carter was unapologetic about his Evangelical faith during the presidential campaign and a great many Evangelicals turned out to support him. The Reagan wing of the Republican Party saw the natural affinity between their agenda and Evangelical values and for the first time in decades Evangelicals found themselves being courted by powerful political interests.
However, despite this change toward reengaging the culture politically, the propensity to focus exclusively on individualistic solutions to problems, suspicion of intellectual pursuits, and a tendency to adopt modes of thinking from the culture uncritically, has persisted to some to degree. There has been a tendency to transfer a consumerist mindset into the church, making some congregations into religiosity Wal-Marts. The focus has become more about the “consumer” having their needs met (however that is defined) than being disciples who are transformed into bearers of God’s image. Having a “personal relationship with Jesus” has often been about quenching a spiritual thirst without significantly touching the material aspects of every day life. Survey studies show again and again that there is little difference between the moral behavior of those who say they are Born Again or Evangelical and the rest of the population. Here again we have a Gnostic-like split between the material and spiritual world and a quest for secret or privatized special knowledge.
The impact this contemporary Gnosticism has had on how the Church relates to the economic sphere of life has been significant. Up until about the time of the Renaissance and the Reformation the Church was the central authority on all matters of life. The big questions of the times were how about how everyday living connected with transcendent issue and what was expected of each individual and community. Life was relatively simple in terms of day to day to living and required no special knowledge or instruction. The organization of day-to-day living was timeless and seemingly unchanging relative to the modern era.
With the disestablishment of the Church and the rise of the Enlightenment, the Church found itself in a disconcerting position. The Church had taught, or given tacit approval of, supernatural understandings of the world that scientists began to show had naturalistic explanations. The Church’s understandings on how the natural world functions were also shown to be in error. The Christendom began to find themselves restricted to an ever smaller circle of the “spiritual,” partly because of the hostile efforts by anti-religious thinkers from the Enlightenment onward. A materialistic world emerged that questioned the need for spiritual guidance and claimed vindication for its materialism by pointing to the prosperity and astonishing advancements it had made, often in direct opposition to the Church. Although, as we have seen in earlier posts, the material progress that was made would not have been possible if not for distinctively Christian perspectives like reason, linear time, progress and the value of the individual as created in the image of God.
By the end of the twentieth century in America, the hope of finding a materialistic basis for purpose and meaning in life has waned. People are curious about spiritual matters and searching for spiritual answers. The question has become how to conceptualize a world in which the spiritual and material world fully integrate? The Christian narrative has that answer but reeling from its disestablishment as an authority on the material world and then on the spiritual world as well, Christians in America have devolved into a variety of dualisms, as I have just described, that may give personal comfort but can’t offer a holistic picture.
If we look back over history we can see this crisis as part of sequence of unveiling and transformations God has done in the world. God established Israel and introduced the concepts of linear time and procession toward a future reality. For the first time, humanity began to be free from fertility gods and the prison of a cyclical view of reality. Through Jesus, God had provided a means for our transformation back into the eikons he intended us to be. The vision was widened to include all peoples and the role of God’s people was changed from procession through time to progression through time. Jesus left us with no written record of his teaching, leaving us to “reason” out our faith in community, based on the faithful witness of others, all through the tutelage and direction of the Holy Spirit. With the narrative of scripture and developing faculty of reason, God has progressively expanded the human capacity to “work the garden,” enabling tremendous advancements to quality of human life. (I know some will raise environmental questions here. I will address those in coming posts.)
The dilemma we experience today is that we live in a world where for the first time we have both the technology and understanding needed to be co-creative developers and stewards of creation with God. Until recent centuries, the material world has seemed a fixed unalterable reality. In such a world, all that was needed was a chaplain that ministers to people as they live out their days, largely at the mercy of the forces at work in their environment. However, when humanity finds itself able to participate in the forces that touch every aspect of their lives, it is imperative that “ministers” of God be present in each and every aspect of human existence.
Unfortunately, the transition from chaplain of a relatively static simple world to equippers of a diverse body of ministers in a dynamic complex world has not happened. The church in all its expression is still reeling from the dislocations of the modernist era and finds itself mired in a host of Gnostic dualisms. The church must recover a holistic Christian anthropology that incorporates the complexities of life today. Fortunately, a sufficient Christian anthropology is present in scripture. However, realizing it will require unlearning some assumptions and patterns that were from another age. Central to that transition is a move away from clergy and laity to equippers and stewards.