Friday, November 25, 2011

Are Christian Groups and Organizations Churches?

In the current issue of catapult, the online journal of *cino, editor Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma offers a thoughtful commentary on the relationship of *cino to the church. To her comments, I would like to add my own:

I think part of the difficulty in understanding what church is and what it isn’t and what it does and what it doesn’t do comes from the tendency of Christians to confuse two things. I don’t think *cino is doing that, but I think it's helpful to make some clear distinctions.

First, believers often don’t distinguish on the one hand between the church as a whole (ie the organic church or the Body of Christ) and on the other hand the institutional church. I presume most readers of catapult are Christians. As such they are members of the Body of Christ or the church universal. In that sense, *cino and catapult are part of the church because they are expressions of the work of the Body of Christ and serve His people. However, many of these same Christians attend “church.” Used in this way, this term refers to the institutional church, the structure in which local congregations exist and provide a place where Christians gather to worship and be fed through the preaching of the Word and the celebratio of the sacraments. So Christians working together (and separately) are always doing the work of the church while they also form local, regional, and national organizations that constitute the institutional church

The second difficulty comes because when Christians gather in these various ‘non-church” institutions but run by Christians and for Christians, those institutions begin to serve church (institutional)-like functions, where folks gather for Bible study, prayer time, etc. In parallel to that, many institutional churches or congregations become passionate about certain Kingdom needs and develop ministries such as schools, day care, meeting the needs of the hungry, and so forth. In both cases they blur the lines between these different institutions and confuse the work of each.

I would argue that the church universal would be well served if the institutional church would stay focused on the immediate task of providing a place for public worship and equipping Christians to serve the Kingdom through the preaching of the Word and the faithful celebration of the sacraments and, perhaps, Sunday-school-like training for children and adults alike. At the same time, those in a local church body who see a need such as developing a Christian political organization, creating a shelter for battered women, and so forth, should establish separate Christian institutions with the sole purpose of meeting those needs.

*Cino does this well, I think, in creating a structure, as Vander Giessen-Reitsma puts it, “to feed the hunger for robust, intellectual, artistic faith practice.” What the church universal needs, then, are more congregations who have a broad Kingdom vision to train, support, and encourage the faithful in Kingdom service without undertaking too much work that is not immediately the task of the institutional church but without, on the other side, becoming narrowly pietistic in their outlook just because these congregations don’t take direct responsibility for the various activities local church members are involved in. Meanwhile, Christians should actively participate in institutions established to advance the God's Kingdom in all areas of life and human experience.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Why Christian Higher Education is Necessary

Portland State University Philosophy professor Dr. Peter Boghossian will present a free public lecture “Faith, Belief and Hope: From Cognitive Sickness to Moral Virtue and Back Again," November 17 at 7:30 P.M. at Portland State University, Science Research and Teaching Center, Room 155, according to a recent press release.

Boghossian encourages educators and members of the academic community to directly confront faith-based beliefs in the classroom. He will challenge six common obstacles to educators failing to engage student beliefs.

Boghossian argues that faith-based beliefs are a cognitive sickness that have been turned into a moral virtue. To counter this phenomenon, he argues that faith-based beliefs should be treated like racist beliefs, given no countenance and stigmatized. An extensive questions and answer period will follow Boghossian’s presentation, and dissenting opinions are especially welcome.

Some might believe that we need Christian colleges and universities to protect Christian students from the attacks they will undoubtedly suffer at state and secular schools from professors who hold such opinions. Others might say we need to send our students to Christian institutions to indoctrinate them against such ideas. Others might say that Christian universities teach Truth whereas Boghassian's example demonstrates the lies perpetuated elsewhere.

I demur from all such positions. In fact, if that were the basis for Christian higher education, such rationale would feed the suspicions of Boghassian and his ilk who believe that faith, Christian or otherwise, is "cognitive sickness." Instead, Christian universities are places of intellectual inquiry and exploration where junior scholars (students) and senior scholars (professors) seek together to understand the world around them, their place in it, and the implications of their faith for understanding the world. Far from protecting, defending, or indoctrinating, the role of the Christian university is to invite open Christian inquiry and scholarship. This kind of openness is freeing and liberating (in keeping with the liberal arts) and is a true antidote to those who would shut down free inquiry by attacking people's faith as though it were akin to "racist beliefs [which should be] given no countenance and stigmatized."

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Tea Partiers and Occupiers of Wall Street

Over the years I've had occasion to observe that the essential difference between Republicans and Democrats (not disregarding a variety of other factors) is their respective distrust of the public sector and the private sector.

What's striking to me, then, is how the two current populist protest movements seem to align so fundamentally with these two parties (even though one of them hasn't yet made an explicit connection to one of the parties). The Tea Partiers seem deeply distrustful of the government (the public sector), while the Wall Street Occupiers are deeply distrustful of corporations and the super rich (the private sector).

For myself, I don't think either assumption is a sufficient basis for a political movement since I operate with the assumption that governments were instituted by God and that free markets are generally effective economic systems. Like my difficulty in aligning with either political party, I also find it difficult to sympathize with either of these protest groups.

I will say this, however: insofar as the Wall Street Occupiers are concerned with the enormous concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a very small number of people and institutions, I think they highlight an important dynamic in modern, post-industrial, western society. Free market theories did not emerge to justify this kind of powerful elite and 18th-century proponents of capitalism would have been alarmed to see such enormous power in the hands of a few and decreasing opportunity for the many.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

What is the Kingdom of God?

According to Google image search, it has something to do with the someplace other than earth or where we now stand (images of heaven, the sky, ladders to heaven, bridges to somewhere else) or potential harvests or yields (fields with ripe grain, fishermen casting nets). Virtually no pictures come up in the top hits protraying earthly acts of mercy or the exercise of cultural formative power.