Everyone knows that American society as a culture is undergoing massive changes. Like it or not, the social-political, religious, and economical landscape of America is different than it was twenty years ago and the end of this metamorphosis taking place appears nowhere in sight. The one certain descriptor is that America is a pluralistic society with a wide-ranging set of beliefs and values. Our understanding of the Christian faith and the sort of life that defines for us is just one understanding among many. So what shall we do?
I’ve been reading Night of the Confessor by Tomáš Halík, an ordained Catholic Priest in Czechoslovakia who once worked as a psychotherapist. In the tenth chapter, titled “God Knows Why,” Halík is getting at the different and often complex questions that people are asking. In response, he writes:
“We shouldn’t let banal questions (or only seemingly banal questions?) provoke us into giving banal answers. The self-assured gesture of evangelical Christians who place a Bible on the table in response is rather tawdry in its theatricality. The old saying “It says it in the Bible so it must be true” is not so easy to apply in this case. We are confronted by a whole set of specific questions that did not confront the people of the Bible, and if we substitute our problems for theirs, and relate answers to other questions to our own problems, then it is not the ‘Bible itself’ that speaks from our words, but instead our all-too-human manipulation of God’s word — and such manipulation is unavowed, unthinking, and often simpleminded. Such overuse and ab-use of the Bible is irresponsible not only vis-à-vis Scripture, but also toward those with whom we still have sufficient credit for them to invite us to dialogue and joint quest.
…There is only one realm that can, to a certain extent, be formed and influenced by the decisions of parliamentarians and individual consciences, and that is the ‘moral climate’ of society, which is a somewhat broader concept than “public opinion” (that other pretender to the throne of infallibility). The moral and spiritual climate of society can cultivate public debate — but again only to a certain extent. That is where believers should be involved, as competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue and conscientiously using all the resources at their disposal: Scripture and reason, tradition and the study of present-day sources of knowledge, awareness of responsibility before God and people, and the thoughtfulness that prayer and meditation confer on human reflection and behavior. (pp. 134-135)
Now if you’re scratching your head and wondering what he is saying, don’t fret. I had to read this again very slowly and think about it. What Halík is saying is that society is asking questions and as we enter into conversation with these questions, we should avoid offering cheap and simple responses. Society is asking questions today that were not necessarily asked in Jesus’ day, so we can’t simply impose the questions of Jesus’ day upon the questions of today and then apply the answers to the questions of Jesus’ day to the questions people are asking today. Doing so is disingenuous and simply saying something like “The Bible says, I believe it, that settle’s it” is an abuse of both the Bible and of those who raise difficult questions.
Rather than resorting to the “banal,” Christians must use the resources of knowledge available to reflect and critically engage in dialogue with these complex questions. The resources that Halík has in mind are scripture, tradition, reason, and culture (what he calls “present-day sources of knowledge”) which kind of makes him, a Catholic Priest, a good Weslyian too. However, most importantly, is the manner in which we engage the dialogue as Christians. We enter the dialogue not just prayerfully, which every Christian would agree with, but we also enter the dialogue “as competent partners respecting the rules of dialogue…”
For sometime I have imagined this dialogue as a large table conversation taking place. Fifty years ago in America it was a given that almost everyone at the table had the same basic worldview that the God spoken of in the Bible is the only God and his word, the Bible, was the ultimate authority on all matters of life. Today, things have changed and the conversation partners at the table are not just Christians, they also include Muslims, Bhuddhists, Hindus, Atheists and Agnostics, Secularist Democrats and Republicans, a wide-variety of social-political activists, and so forth. Some of these partners would even be happy if we Christians would just get up and go off to our own table (and some Christians would be happy to do so as well) but that isn’t an option if we are to participate in the mission of God.
So how do we enter into this dialogue taking place at the cultural round-table? We need to learn good table manners, which includes respecting the rules of dialogue. This means entering the dialogue with a posture of humility that listens to understand before speaking and it certainly excludes any sort of posture that demands others listen to us. Shouting at and ridiculing others we deem to be wrong won’t help at all. Furthermore, when we come as humble yet “competent” conversation partners willing dialogue about complex questions, we are able to have a say in shaping “moral and spiritual” climate of culture. That opens space for God to work through his Spirit, slowly cultivating a new culture as others make decisions about the direction of life. That is the keys to the kingdom!
Grace and Peace,
K. Rex Butts