Many have asked the question, “What would you do if Jesus returned tomorrow.” I generally don’t worry about that question. I look to the Parable of the Faithful Servant for wisdom. The faithful servant does not focus on when his master will return… but rather to be faithful each day… doing what one should be doing every day.
But then I must be honest. Today I taught two classes (“Contemporary Issues in Missions” and “Cultural Anthropology”) at seminary. It occurs to me that if Christ was returning tomorrow, then teaching students to do ministry would be quite a waste of time. Maybe there would be something more important to do than train students for a ministerial vocation that would cease to be in a matter of hours.
But that is the problem isn’t it. If we spend too much time focusing on the nearness of Christ’s return, it can actually motivate us to the wrong action. At first this seems counter-intuitive. Wouldn’t doing right be the correct response to the nearness of Christ? But many of the best life choices demand investment in long-term processes. Focusing on the nearness of Christ’s return can motivate one away from long-term investment in important relationships and spiritual discipline and more towards something that could be thought of as “spiritual day-trading”– short-term activities that seem like they would give a quick return even if they lead to minimal long-term “fruits.”
So, consider the this question, “WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF CHRIST RETURNS IN 200 YEARS?” Here are some possibilities:
Would you spend time in discipling others— preparing the next generation of the church?
Would you invest your life in your children to raise them up in the way they should go?
Would you seek to grow in your relationship with God, accepting life as a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey, of faith?
Would you seek to become a positive transformative influence in your community?
Would you seek to express love of God in the love of others and action against social evils wherever they exist?
Would you seek to be a good steward of the world you live in to help ensure a healthy place for your descendants to the 4th or 5th generation?
Would you do these things if you were convinced that Jesus was coming tomorrow? I don’t know, but probably not. Would you consider doing these things if Jesus was coming in 200 years? I hope so.
In my research for the student textbook on Inter-Religious Dialogue I am writing, I came upon a nice article that included a disagreement between two leaders in the field of IRD in the 1970s— John Hick and Max Warren. (“Evangelicalism without Hyphens: Max Warren, the Tradition and Theology of Mission” by Tim Yates. Anvil: Journal of Theology and Mission. Vol 2, No. 3, 1985. p. 231 – 245)
John Hick suggested that IRD should be drawn from a radically new view of the relationship of Christianity to other faiths. He considered the transition as a sort of “Copernican Revolution.” theologically-speaking.
The traditional view could be likened to the Terracentric (Ptolemaic) Model in Astronomy. In this case, instead of the earth being the center, the center is Christianity. One would then see Christianity as the center, and other religions would circle the Christian faith from various distances depending on how closely they aligned with the doctrines of Christianity. In essence, Christinity is “the truth” and other religions are in essence “false,” although with perhaps various degrees of falseness.
The view proposed by Hick could be likened to the Heliocentric (Copernican) Model. Here, however, the center is God. God is the center of faith, and various faith groups revolve around this center. On first glance, this seems quite reasonable. God should be the center not our own religion, correct? But there was a problem. That problem had to do with the issue of religious uniqueness. If God is the center and different religious groups revolve around that center, than Christianity is just one of many— maybe the closest, or maybe the “best” but no more— just one faith construct to know or have access to God. If that is true, than to understand God in our Inter-Religious Dialogue, we should open our minds to other truths about God from other groups, and question our own presumptive beliefs. In essence, one must relativize one’s own beliefs if one is to gain insight from others. And, arguably, to relativize one’s beliefs about one’s own faith, one must also doubt the uniqueness of Christ as revelation of God.
This is quite consistent if one accepts a Theocentric system for IRD. But Warren suggested a different possibility that I am calling the “Unclusive Uniqueness” of Christ. A way I might suggest it is to think of a Christocentric Model. However, perhaps instead of saying that Christ is the center, I may be more specific and say the “Revelatory Christ.” After, all there are many religious views of Christ from the panoply of faiths out there. These views tend to give a discription with an implicit “among many” They may say that Jesus is
- a prophet (among many)
- a god (among many)
- an angel (among many)
- a holy man (among many)
Jesus Christ however, is expressed in Scripture as unique in revealing God. As such, “among many” doesn’t really apply.
Note, however, that placing the revealed Christ at the center, does risk again taking away the uniqueness of Christianity. And to an extent that is a valid concern. Our foundation, however, is in Christ, not the church. To the extent that Christianity aligns itself with the revealed Christ, it is on a unique and firm foundation. To the extent that we drift, we fall more into an orbit around Christ like other faiths.
Consider a bit from Tim Yate’s article:
“<Warren> quoted J. M Creed, the Cambridge theologian of an earlier generation, to the effect that, whereas Christian theology did not need to claim that it contained all truth of religious value, it was committed to the view that ‘in Christ it had found the deepest truth of God’. Not to do so was for the Church to lose itse1f. From this point Max argued that the uniqueness to which he was committed was essentially inclusive. Jesus’ relationship to God as ‘Abba’, father, is distinctive but in this relationship he is Man, inclusive Man, relating to God. Max is prepared to accept the Copernican revolution where this means displacing the religion, Christianity (vide Hick above) from the centre. For such a religion can easily degenerate into idolatry, and so invite God’s judgement, as any other religion, a view familar to readers of Barth or Hendrik Kraemer. Max then made a move which was characteristic but vulnerable to Hick’s response: I want to argue that Christianity being removed from the centre the new centre is not a theological term -God- but an historical person, Jesus, in whom God is to be recognized as uniquely revealed.” (Yates, 239)
Where does this leave us as Christians in terms of IRD. If Christ is the center, and not the Christian faith, one should be open to the reasonable and humble belief that “we don’t know it all.” As such, Christians have the opportunity to learn and grow through dialogue, not just teach others. That being said, that inclusiveness is not to lead to a relativization of faith, since our center is the revelatory Christ. Dialogue tht leads us away from Christ as God’s unique revelation, is has led us astray.
Above is a graph on XKCD. It is described as A webcomic of romance,
sarcasm, math, and language. You can visit this specific comic at https://xkcd.com/1991/
The graph is meant to be humourous but also reasonable. It looks at areas of study based on two spectra— How big is the things studied, and what is the quantity of the things studied.
Theology is placed quite correctly. It seeks to study God… and that which is created by God. That is pretty big— arguably there could be nothing bigger. For the second axis, Quantity, I might be tempted to change the label to Mystery. To what extent are we delving into things beyond our understanding versus addressing areas of study that already have well-worn paths. If one understands theology as the biggest and most tentative/mysterious of fields, then the “God of the Gaps” theory sort of breaks down. It would be more accurate to say “Science (or Empiricism) of the Gaps.”
For some, this seems wrong. Theology is often taught in repetition of dogma. Theology is small and well-structured and defined. This is understandable. After all, to study what is beyond our comprehension and experience, requires (I believe) the presumption that the infinite and ineffable has at times in history intentionally broken into the finite and mundane and revealed itself to us. Thus, a major aspect of theology is to look back at such revelations. As a Christian, I certainly see the incarnation of Christ as central. All other revelations (with the possible exception of the Creation) hold a 2nd position at best.
At the same time, theology, as a thoroughly human endeavor and construct, should alway be entered into with humility and a certain tentativeness.
When we have all of the answers… we are almost certainly missing the most important answers, and perhaps the most important questions.
This post makes the, controversial (?), suggestion that Lot lacked cultural flexibility, and that this led to his downfall. If curious, please read on.
I was teaching a little seminar on Missionary Anthropology in Hong Kong a couple of days ago. I was talking about levels of acculturation— the fact that we often go through stages of adjusting ourselves to new cultures… and we never get to a place where we are comfortable with certain aspects of another culture. One of the students came up afterward and said that in an Intro to Missions class, she was taught that missionaries received a gift to acculturate to other cultures. What was my view on that?
I said that I basically agreed. And I think I can still say that after reflection. I like to say that there are two major characteristics of a missionary:
- Willingness (to go)
- (cultural) Flexibility
I often note that a third characteristic of “Spirituality” is a myth. Missionaries rarely have a quality of spirituality that lines up with most Christian’s understanding of spirituality. Few are heavily pious or contemplative. And yet, it is quite narrow to limit spirituality to such things. Perhaps, it is wise to add a third characteristic that I could call:
- Spiritual Resilience
A missionary can recognize God being with her whether being in her home culture, or far from home, whether being well-connected in a supportive community of faith, or spiritual alone— a stranger in a strange land.
Returning, for a moment, to the question above… is there a Missions Gift— a special gift to adapt to other cultures? Maybe. Some have a gift or talent for language. (I don’t care about it being a gift versus a talent… both come from God. Worrying about which is which is a matter of labeling, not of substance.) Maybe some have a gift of cultural adaptation.
I have certainly met those who lack such flexibility— those who are culturally “brittle.” Some appear to be unable to see things through any other filter than their own culture. These probably should not be in Missions. Does cultural flexibility come as a gift from God? I don’t know. But I would suggest a few things.
First. Cultural flexibility does come, in part, from a personal choice. One commonly must make a conscious effort to bracket one’s natural tendency to respond via one’s cultural filter.
Second. Cultural flexibility is not an ON versus OFF thing. There is a spectrum. I have gotten stories of people on Short-term Missions who seem to have no capacity (or at least no desire) to learn ANYTHING from another culture. Every other culture “sucks” except their own. I have not met such extreme people in missions… but have found some that come close. These people get angry and frustrated very easily in other cultures. They often see people from other cultures as bigoted, dishonest, and manipulative. Since pretty much all people have those qualities, there is truth to their assessment. But more and more they attach these qualities to people of another culture. Such individuals ultimately either run back to their home culture… or wall themselves off from the culture they are in.
Third. Cultural flexibility is part of an overall process of adaptation to a culture. It continues with some aspects of a culture becoming normalized to the person, while other parts remain foreign for years and years.
Now… Let’s talk about Lot
Particularly, let’s examine Lot as a person with limited cultural flexibility. This is counter to the normal interpretation of the man. In fact, the more common view is that Lot was TOO flexible, while having too little spiritual resilience. This view may be correct… but I would like to suggest an alternative view.
Lot was described in the New Testament (II Peter 2) as a righteous man. This was also implied in Genesis 19 when God promised to save Sodom if there were 10 righteous men. This number wasn’t achieved, and yet Lot was rescued from the city regardless. Both the Old and New Testament suggest that he was righteous.
There are arguments against this. First, his choosing the nicer land for grazing rights over Abraham is seen by some as selfish. While I suppose that is somewhat true, Abraham did give him the choice, with the implication that either choice was acceptable. If Abraham offered for Lot to make a choice, but only one of the choices was moral, then Abraham would be the one at fault more than Lot. Second, his move toward Sodom is seen metaphorically as a drift to sinfulness. This, of course, could also be true, but this involves considerable reading into the passage. Third, his lack of impact on the community he was in, as well as in his own family, can be seen as evidence of his lack of spirituality. Again this is a possibility, but there are other possibilities.
Let’s consider the possibility that Lot lacked cultural flexibility. Cultural flexibility does not mean, moral flexibility— allowing oneself to drift into sinfulness because “everyone else is doing it.” Cultural flexibility means able to be a channel of God’s light and blessing in a different culture. In essence, it is an adaptation to a culture that allows one to have impact on it while in it.
Consider II Peter 2:7-8. Here Lot is not the main issue, but is used as an example of God’s intent and ability to save the righteous from His judgment of evil. Speaking of God, it says:
He rescued Lot, a righteous man distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless 8(for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)—
The passage says that he was distressed and tormented. At first this sounds like good behavior of a righteous person. Yet, we don’t really find Jesus being described as distressed and tormented by sinful behavior around Him. He seemed more distressed by hypocrisy of “righteous” people, than the behavior of the unrighteous. Paul is described as a bit distressed by the great idolatry he saw in the Greek cities. However, the only time he seemed to be greatly distressed was against those who attempted to worship him. In Athens, a major center of idolatry, he was able to commend the Athenians in their great drive to be religious. Both Jesus and Paul (and Barnabas, and the other apostles) were able to adjust themselves to the culture they were in.
In other words, the description of Lot may not be typify the missionary ideal of spiritual resilience so much as inadequate cultural flexibility. A prophetic role in a sinful community is one of being an agent of change… while still learning to adapt to that culture.
Lot had essentially no impact on the community. This may suggest that he became as morally depraved as they were. But if that was so, why was he described as righteous and bothered intensely by the sinfulness of those around him? While moral failure may be a cause for lack of impact in a community, another reason can be cultural separation. In cultural separation, one holds onto one’s own culture too strongly without integration into the broader community. When this happens, the person is encapsulated in the community by his own culture… having an enclave that has little interaction with the broader community except as necessary.
This hypothesis finds support, I believe, in the vignette in Genesis where two angels (messengers of God) come to visit Lot, and some of the men in the community want to rape them. Lot seeks to protect the angels by offering his daughters. At first, this sounds like more on Lot’s moral depravity. But think about it for a moment. Sodom wasn’t a big city so Lot, a successful man in the community, should have the social capital and relational bonds to dissuade his neighbors. Yet he could not. This suggests that he was socially disconnected from the society within which he resided. His offering of his daughters, whether real in line with extremes of Middle East hospitality, or simply a ploy, points to a man who did not know how to interact with his neighbors. This is in line with a couple of short episodes with Abraham. Abraham, a righteous man and man of influence in his community, fell apart socially in other cultures. At the court of Abimelech and in Egypt, Abraham was so uncomfortable with the settings that he, in essence, protected himself by putting his wife at risk. There are similarities between this and what Lot did.
People who enter a new culture willingly without cultural flexibility will fail. If they lack spiritual resilience, they will fail morally. If, however, they have decent spiritual resilience, they will fail by failing to have an impact in the community. They will be culturally disconnected, distressed by the broader community, and unable to handle the social intricacies of the society. Chances are they will become a lot like Lot.
One of the mysteries in Christianity is why some churches thrive and others fade. Some see the fate of churches as a direct result of their faith. A church of bad or inadequate faith will fade away, while a church of solid faith will endure and prosper. In other words:
Faith Determines Fate
(But is that really true?)
This belief can become a tautology. A church that prospers is then seen as having a robust faith while a church that dies is seen as having inadequate faith. In truth, this is heavily presumptive. A fading church is seen as having inadequate faith, and this inadequate faith is demonstrated by the fact that the church fades away.
Consider two cases— the Roman church of North Africa (modern-day Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria) and the Nestorian church of the Central Asian traderoutes— both of these in the 1st millenium AD.
Both essentially died out (or at least became tiny enclave minorities). Why? Some would say that it is due to the Muslim Invasion (especially for the North African churches) or Muslim and Mongol rule in Central Asia. Yet, the church of Egypt survived and even thrived in almost 1400 years of Muslim rule (despite occasional pogroms). The same can be said of the church in Syria. In some places, like Greece and Spain, Muslim rulership had almost no long-term impact. In church of China in the 20th century (as well as the early church under Roman rule) grew tremendously under sporadic and sometimes systematic persecution. It is hard to see a general pattern.
Still, at least in some cases, one can make a good guess. Consider the churches of the Silk Road(s) in Central Asia. They thrived for centuries and then began to fade out. Why? There are several possible reasons. However, one major reason was probably the fact that Nestorian Christianity was primarily a religion of the traderoute cities in Central Asia. In other words, it had not worked its way into the countryside for the most part.
To understand the importance of this, one must note the fact that until the growth of sanitation methodologies in the 1800s, cities had a negative biological growth rate. That is, for a city to maintain its population, people had to keep moving into it from surrounding areas.
A traderoute city had a transient population of traders, and a local population of residents that must be regularly restocked with people in the surrounding lands to maintain itself. For several centuries a large percentage of the traders (transient population) were Christians. Many residents in the city were Christian as well. However, since the surrounding countryside was not generally reached, the resident population was regularly dealing with an inflow of non-Christians. For the Christian church to survive in such a setting, the church needed to do more than simply raise up Christian children. Because of the negative biological growth of cities (more dying than born), the church had to constantly convert those moving into the city. This was helped by a large transient population of Christian traders. However, as the new Millenium was starting, the number of traders who were Christian began to drop. This may have been due to some new laws in Muslim-held territories. It may have also been due to Christianity being declared illegal in China starting in the 9th century.
With the transient population becoming increasingly non-Christian, the inflow of new residents being predominantly non-Christian, and the negative biological population rate of Christians in these trade cities, the decline was hardly shocking.
North African had a similar situation, but even more extreme. The church in this region was quite vibrant in the major cities, but also had little impact in the rural areas. Additionally, Christianity had a Roman flair to it that was out of touch with the majority of (“Hamitic”) residents of North Africa. With the Muslim invasion, and the corresponding reduction of interaction with Roman/Western lands, the city population was maintained by the inflow of people from the surrounding areas who were not only not Christian, but had little in common culturally with the Christians living in the cities. In places like Egypt, Christianity had well overflowed the cities into the countryside so the church endured and prospered. In the rest of North Africa, the decline was swift.
This is a hypothesis and I am not sure how solid it would be in terms of predicting results. But it is also true that things are a bit different today.
How are things different now.
- Cities do not necessarily have negative population growth rate. Sanitation and health practices have changed over the recent decades.
- People are still moving to cities for opportunity, but this migration is causing many cities to not simply maintain but grow. This has led to mega-cities or GUCs (Great Urban Centers).
Because of this, it may no longer be true that urban Christianity has to reach out intentionally beyond the urban areas to survive. There is now a growing outflow that occurs naturally that may in some places more than match the inflow of peoples. That being said, history has not smiled on Christian efforts that limit themselves by ignoring the cities (at one extreme) or ignoring the countryside (on the other).
I believe we live in the fourth wave of Protestant Missions. The first three waves were : Coastlands, Interiors, and UPGs (Unreached People Groups). I think we are really in a fourth now. That is the GUCs (Great Urban Centers). Human migration, combined with the changing social and demographic dynamics of cities has moved away from UPGs to pluralistic urban communities. This does not mean that rural areas can be ignored. But it does mean that the dynamics of the 1st Millenium do not fully apply today. Ministry in the GUCs can impact the surrounding areas due to outflow. (Note that it was the unregulated outflow of residents of Jerusalem due to persecution that initially started the great expansion of the church in the first century.)
I do think it is safe to say that persecution is NOT a cause of church extinction. Neither is disempowerment. There are far too many examples of the church thriving in these situations. However, the church has not done so well when it ignores the ethnic diversity of its surroundings, or bases its outreach on the presumption that the status quo will remain unchanged into the future.
To fail to prepare for change is to prepare to fade.