Thursday, March 31, 2005

Church and Culture

A church that has lost its soul to the spirit of the age is driven by culture instead of inspiring cultural renewal. When the church occupied Roman temples and adapted the art of the Greeks, it gained influence and was enriched by alien traditions, but the alliance with imperial power soon led to abuse and the persecuted church became a whore that waged war on dissidents. Bishops lived in palatial grandeur surrounded by the finest art, but most were autocrats and their ministries were sold to the highest bidder. After centuries of the abuse of power the church was fragmented by revolts and religious wars throughout Europe.

In the past hundred fifty years, assimilation of the church by Enlightenment empiricism has reached a stage that many Christians cannot not credibly defend their essential theology and moral truths. Probably the clearest example of materialism in Christian thought is liberation theology, a variant of dialectical materialism. For much of the twentieth century nobody in the social service ministries of the church could ignore the contention that material resources were the only real basis for aid. Catholic churches benefit from the stabilizing influence of historic moral and theological traditions and liturgical form, but the level of government funding in Catholic social-service ministries still drags religious orders to the political left.

Old-line Protestants conform to “values” dictated by the intelligentsia in matters of sex and politics. As with the Catholics, a generation of permissive sexual mores has led to scandals and a feast of litigation against sexual abusers among the Protestant clergy. Since the revival era Evangelicals have pretty much defaulted to pop culture. Worship in most churches sounds like a hootenanny or a rock concert. Nobody should be surprised when evangelists carry on like pop-music idols.

If the doctrines can be maintained that make the church God’s instrument in the world, the process of enculturation is ennobling both for Christians and those whose culture the church assimilates. The Kingdom of Heaven claims art and science for the author of creativity and invention. But how does the church redeem the world in its expansion without being molded by destructive ideologies that are always at hand? Part of the answer can be found in a doctrine attributed to St. Augustine called the unity of truth. In this conception, the church does not have a monopoly on truth. Truth is to be found in its own scriptures, traditions, and through human reason, but the literature, traditions, and philosophy of other civilizations are also legitimate in many particulars. Discernment guides those who seek to adapt the finest things of all cultures, not the most marketable, in service of faith and civility.

Unfortunately, the current cultural ethos marginalizes the people most likely to aid cultural renewal in the church and, through its influence, in the community. Evangelicals seem sincere about maintaining traditional doctrines, while giving in to pop culture. Historic churches with traditional liturgy subsidize excellence in the arts but acquiesce to liberationist creeds. Those who try to think independently are alienated by relentlessly expanding accommodation and find themselves marginalized in church just as they are at work, in the arts, and in academic communities. The tyranny of the majority is the norm. It doesn’t take a genius to see the loss of credibility the church incurs through its malleability to everything that comes down the pike. The question is how minorities holding on to both the historic ideals of the church and the cultural legacy of Western civilization can prevail against majorities of pragmatists in their congregations.

During the optimistic beginnings of the Ecumenical Movement there were living-room dialogues between Catholics and Protestants, which often only confused people about what others believed and even about the theology of their own denominations. It’s going to take more than dialogue to forge coalitions to maintain both sound doctrine and build on the historic cultural advances of Christians who got the church and culture exchange right. People of orthodox conviction whether Evangelicals, historic Protestants, or Catholics, need to organize against the impoverishments of body and soul threatening to undo centuries of progress. A lot more is at stake that good music, but when the church can’t find a way to worship with excellence and dignity in its own sanctuaries, how is it going to prevail against the moral anarchy outside? In the cultural void left by deconstruction of Western Civilization, advancements against autocracy and terror that took centuries to establish will, sooner or later, be relinquished to an oligarchy presuming to restore order. The doctrines that still delay full communion of the Church pale beside ideologies that will damage all alike unless there is cooperation in exposing crimes against humanity that materialistic creeds entail. Pray for vision and endurance. Pray for vital spiritual formation within the church that will make it a city on a hill instead of a ghetto of derivative nonsense.

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