Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Post 3800 - The Preservation Of...

James's post about the collection of church taxes in Germany led me down interesting paths.  Summary:  C of E - what we would call the Episcopal or Anglican church here in North America, has been The great vessel of Western Civilisation these past three or four centuries.  Yet it has not been an especially good bearer of Christianity.  It has been one among many.  It has had its moments and his shining stars, to be sure.  But even terrible churches have produced Christians of stunning brightness, so that is not in and of itself evidence of spiritual strength.

Christians since the Roman Empire have believed that surrounding culture is important for the preservation of the faith, though there has always been a solid minority which has held it is irrelevant.  I think the former idea is closer to the truth but fear the day that the latter opinion is no longer firmly, even fanatically espoused among us.

I will hold all posts for a few days.  I would like my readers, a diverse and - really - quite brilliant bunch, to give their thoughts on this large issue.  Some of you have your own sites, and I encourage you to link to same in the comments.  But this is the sort of overview question that changes slowly in our lives, but has large effects down the road.


George said...

Cradle Episcopalian until a bunch of us left ECUSA o start an Anglican Church (of North America). What you say is right, but we are trying to break out of that mold. Very Spirit filled church, focused on bringing people to Christ. However, the liturgy is really something special, and we have kept that. The liturgy is so Bible based and rich and meaningful.

karrde said...

The social background in which Christianity is recognized as influential is interesting.

Among the ways in which it may be helpful:
-spreading a common measure of morality which is friendly to Christian life
-making it easier for people in need of spiritual aid to understand the help offered by the Church
-building a rhythm of life in which the Church plays an important role at pivotal points (birth, marriage, death)

But there are also potential pitfalls
-potential for confusion between good manners and the Christian life
-opening room for King and Country (or Supports of the Homeland) to bend the Church into supporting certain things outside the realm of making the culture Christian. These things may be morally good, morally neutral, or morally evil.

I think we're in the territory where God is a better judge than any human.

james said...

The link between Church and State is involved. I like to look at the Orthodox, because they tied them together closely and developed some theology to explain why—though I don’t know the details as well as I’d like.
The Orthodox want Caesar to be an icon of God, and seem to want God’s ministers on Earth to see to it that God’s will is done as closely as possible—that we all do our part in trying to redeem the world. In that “semi-ideal” environment the wicked are punished (of course), and the culture provides the language for understanding the gospel and every opportunity for obedience and service.
One problem is, as Karrde pointed out, that there’s the risk of confusing “going along with the culture” with real redemption. Courtesy is an attenuated form of love, and a good thing to have when you don’t/can’t love everyone, but it isn’t love.
Another is that the culture, and the local church itself are human creations. True, the Holy Spirit has a hand in the church, but the staffing and the bylaws are our job (and a royal mess of it we generally make: if God didn’t work through it anyway the church would be long gone). As with all human creations, there are intrinsic problems, and the rules and functions don’t cover all the possibilities. Both the culture and the local church begin as partly good and partly corrupt; and when you’re immersed in the culture you don’t always notice the difference.
When the church is corrupt, what then is the responsibility of Caesar as God’s icon? The Emperor sometimes got to replace bishops he didn’t like, demand changes in theological statements, yank out the tongue of the obstinate, and so on. (I’m thinking of Constans II.) Orthodox history isn’t very edifying, it turns out.
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new, And God fulfils Himself in many ways, Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.”
On the other extreme some cultures are inimical to Christianity. For centuries Christian missionaries made no progress in Denmark or Scandinavia because “turn the other cheek” was anathema to the warrior cultures. And I’ve heard stories of missionaries working for decades in Muslim lands without a single convert—because the price for converting is so high. Japan almost exterminated its Christians (though some survived pretending to be Buddhist), China drove them out twice (and China used to have a community of Jews, but I’ve no idea what became of them). Christianity in Korea would probably not be anything like as popular as it is if it hadn’t become associated with national resistance to Japan.
China is an interesting example, actually. Nestorians learned the language and translated what they could, and found that the only simple way to communicate some concepts was to start from Buddhist terminology, which caused confusion later on when the distinctions weren’t recognized. (Reportedly some Heavenly Land Buddhist missionaries were studying Chinese just down the street; the borrowing may not have gone only one way.) When the supernatural is carefully bundled into private folk-religion and the philosophy is aggressively secular (as when the Confucionists were in charge), it is hard for a combination of supernatural and reason like Christianity to get traction.
The Aladura churches include a lot of “prophets” and things we’d find weird and even inappropriate, but members of the early church would probably run screaming from an American mega-church band-centered service.
Another frightening thing to think about is the “burnt-over districts” where waves of revivalists went through towns. After a while nobody seemed to have any interest in Christianity at all; probably partly because everybody was jaded with enthusiasm. A huge risk with a lot of churches in and deriving from the US is the prosperity gospel: it brings ‘em in during the flush times, but it’s a frail reed when you’re suffering. “They’re all liars, and I’ll teach my kids to avoid them too.” I know a few who never were taught about redemptive suffering, and reject all religion now.

Anonymous said...

Let the church institutions burn. Jesus certainly would've. There's no scriptural basis for a church having any kind of political voice or trying to exert change on society. There's no scriptural basis for the church being anything at all, besides a gathering of believers.

james said...

The body of Christ?

karrde said...

The thing that bugs me is that, absent sudden changes of mind by noticeable percentages of the society, it is rather hard to acquire (or destroy) the church-as-dominant-force-in-culture model.

Above a certain critical mass (or influential person in position of power), it's hard to avoid the problems of being a dominant force in culture.

Below a certain percentage, it is hard to avoid the problems of being a cultural minority.

I don't know if there's a middle ground of not-small-minority combined with not-culturally-dominant.

james said...

I'm don't know if there is either. The Church of the East wasn't generally a majority anywhere. Their history might be one place to look, although a cursory review looked pretty martyr-heavy after the Muslims took over. I'm not sure where to look for histories that include cultural effects. (as opposed to listing all the miracles Saint Thus and So did and the heretics he resisted.)

Slow changes might not show up in histories directly anyway. Why did slavery almost die away in the West, and to some degree in the Byzantine Empire? You can put together a before and an after and little details along the way to explain how the church's influence changed things, but I don't think we'll find a Byzantine manuscript describing the History of Slavery in the Roman Empire.

Still, it would be very interesting to know how far a minority church could be salt and light in a culture.

Texan99 said...

It's a cruel choice -- if Christianity is mainstream and safe, it's easier to attract converts, but we'll perhaps tend to be complacent or casual. I wouldn't like to answer for my willingness to be martyred. If Christianity is rare and persecuted, the converts you get will be steely, but it will be awfully hard to get them, and they'll be subject to the dangers of cultishness, including arrogance and insularity.