A Luring that is Without

Somewhat lengthy quote of W. Paul Jones in his book “Theological Worlds: Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief.” They are quoted backwards, in that the first two paragraphs are from page 14 while the third paragraph is from page 11.

“Tillich distills these conclusions to which the past centuries have brought us by insisting that human beings are uniquely characterized by the inability to exist without meaning. We are freaks, for while life all around us does unquestioningly what it seems structured to do, humans cannot quiet the question, Why? Such self-consciousness brings forth deep needs— to be meaningful, to be significant, to belong. These needs are not optional but appear to be essential to human existence as such.  …..

Peter Berger once observed that while dogs have an instinct for being dogs, humans alone are born into an unfinished world, one they must endeavor to complete in order to be able to call themselves human. Whatever functions as one’s ultimate concern in this endeavor provides the content designatable as one’s God. Such an understanding makes common cause with Augustine’s insistence that by nature, each person must love. The theological issue is not if, but who or what functions as one’s ultimate love.

We are restless, and thus religious, for we are never satisfied with the apparent, or tamed by the known limits. Rather, like a spider trapped in a bottle, we push at the boundaries of life and death, puzzle over strategies of good and evil, while dropping from a string hung daringly over the edges of mystery. The religious in each of us is an impulse to journey, to quest, to seek— for self-identity, belonging, legitimacy, meaning. And in the end, it is a hope worth believing that the impulse within has its counterpart in a luring that is Without.

In other words, our seemingly built-in desire for meaning— seeking to find god(s)— may actually be evidence of a God who is seeking to be found.

Missions in “Five Worlds”

Mars (back left), Mercury (back right), Moon (...
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Suppose you were trying to get a person to stop smoking (tobacco products). How would you do it?

Method 1. Come up with a message and use it consistently. For example, one could tell everyone about the health risks of smoking.

Method 2. Discover what each person values, and tailor the message to that person.

I would strongly recommend the 2nd method. This might be demonstrated as follows:

  1. John is an athlete. The message may include information on how smoking reduces lung capacity and overall reduces performance and endurance.
  2. Kim is looks conscious. The message could show the negative effect of smoking on teeth, hair, and skin.
  3. William is concerned about money. The message could emphasize the huge yet subtle cost of smoking and what the person could have if he had invested his money differently.
  4. Ann has a fear of death… or at least premature death. The message could emphasize the effect on average lifespan.
  5. Tim is young. The message could be the repercussions of underage smoking with his parents and his school.

This is not the limit on the options. Someone who is concerned about quality of life/health more than longevity or physical performance may require a different message.  This is not to say that choosing one message means the other messages are left unsaid. Rather, the receiver of the message needs to primarily hear the message that most resonates with his/her personality, values, and perceived needs.

What about the message of Christ?

W. Paul Jones describes five theological “worlds” in his book Theological Worlds:  Understanding the Alternative Rhythms of Christian Belief (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989)]. The five he describes are:

  • World 1.               Separation and Reunion
  • World 2.              Conflict and Vindication
  • World 3.            Emptiness and Fulfillment
  • World 4.            Condemnation and Forgiveness
  • World 5.            Suffering and Endurance

All of these are valid expressions of Christian faith. Different people, both Christian and non-Christian, find different worlds “resonant” with who they are and what they value.

Evangelism tends to focus on World #4.  We live condemned by our sins against God, and we need His forgiveness. Sometimes evangelism may also focus on World #2. Man, the world, and the powers of darkness are at war with God, but God gives us the power to have victory… the victory of and in Christ. Occasionally, World #1 may be dealt with as well. We live separated from our Creator… paradise lost. But through God we can be restored to our rightful place in the family of God… paradise restored.  Worlds 3 and 5 are commonly ignored.

Strangely, many people are resonant, find special meaning, in these other “worlds”.  I find World 5 most meaningful. We live lost and struggling in a fallen world. But Christ comes alongside and helps us endure and grow, leading by example and suffering with and for us. Many other people find the post-modern World #3 as especially meaningful. We live in a confusing world without meaning and purpose… an existential crisis. But through Christ we find fulfillment and purpose—our proper place.

I would like to suggest missions and evangelism should operate in all five worlds. In this, I am not suggesting that there are no other possible worlds, but rather that these are major ones that are directly tied to the Christian message. A few points are worth noting, however.

  1. A problem with picking only one world is that the message may not be appreciated/understood by the receiver of the message. We often describe people as being “receptive” to the Gospel. However, perhaps at times we end up doing the weeding out of potential converts (rather than the heart of the person or the Holy Spirit) by our presentation of the message.
  2. A second problem is that when one tries to make one world message the message for all, much of the time and energy is expended trying to get the respondent to focus on the same thing the message focuses on. Therefore, a person who may have needs associated with World 1 is “talked into” being concerned about condemnation so that a World 4 message would be effective. It is like talking to a smoker concerned about health, and trying to convince him that money is the big concern so that he would respond to a message about the monetary cost of smoking.
  3. A third potential problem is making a message that ONLY works in one world. If all of the 5 worlds are valid on some level, then on some level the full benefits of the Gospel should be dealt with. Therefore a person concerned with suffering should still understand that through Christ we have, in addition to endurance, also forgiveness, reunion, fulfillment, and vindication.
  4. A fourth problem is that we must realize that this is not merely pragmatism. That is, we are not just doing “whatever it takes” to get a positive response. If someone has the felt need to abuse others, we don’t modify the message to suggest that in Christ we can fulfill our desires to abuse others. The message of the Gospel of Christ must still be constrained by the truth of Christ. For example, some use a “prosperity” teaching… that in Christ we get all of our selfish desires without any struggles or suffering. This is a corruption of the message in World 2.  Likewise, some give a message that is sometimes called “easy believism” or “cheap grace”. This is a corruption of World 4 or World 1.
  5. A fifth problem is suggested by the 4th problem. Perhaps corruption of the message of the Gospel becomes less likely if we recognize the validity of all five worlds. For example, the corruption of the message based on World 2 would be less likely if we also recognize the validity of suffering and endurance of World 5. Likewise, the corruption of a World 5 message that might prove to be too  pessimistic and fatalistic could be mitigated by World 2’s focus on our victory in Christ.

Ultimately, our message and our missions should broaden to the broadness of Christ’s message. Narrowing it to our own preferences or the theological focus of our “group” makes the message smaller and our missions work less effective.