Jeff Haanen

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Christianity and culture

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CultureTheologyWork

What Greg Thompson Can Teach Us About Living as Christians in Cities

Occasionally you meet somebody that shines with such virtue that you are, perhaps for the first time, made aware of your own poverty of spirit.

When I met Greg Thompson during our Thriving Cities symposium in late October, I almost immediately felt the weight of his glory. Before speaking to the crowd, he almost desperately asked me to let him know if there was anybody I knew at the event who had a particular hurt or pain that he could pray for. Unlike my concerns (Will the event be a success? Will people “like” the evening?), it seemed to me that his vision for the renewal of cities was almost completely driven by an other-worldly love.

It’s rare that I go back over a talk that a DIFW speaker has given several times to take notes, underline, and to pray. But when Greg spoke about our “shared wound and shared calling” to reimagine what a virtuous civic life might look like, it was not just my mind, but through sitting under his teaching, quietly my heart was drawn to the beauty of his vision.

Here are six movements Greg Thompson encouraged us to make as Christian people living in cities today. 

1. We need to move from a posture of victimhood to servanthood.

“It’s true, of course, that [Christians] are in fact an increasingly marginal people, a trend that looks to continue for a really long while — like a hundred years probably. And it is true that simply by virtue of having moral norms that we cling to, we can be seen as a moral threat to the aspirations of our nation. But it’s also true that Christ is risen, and that while we may be marginalized, we can never be victimized, for heaven’s sake. And to the contrary, we don’t live in this world either as masters or as victims but as servants.”

Fear is rampant in American culture, says Pulitzer-Prize winning author Marilynne Robinson. And I’ve felt this fear too. Just saying you’re a Christian can be a recipe for career sabotage or becoming socially ostracized.

But fear is not a Christian habit of mind  love is. Even as Christians are losing public influence and public voice, Greg reminded me that night at the event that we may be pushed to the margins, but we need never adopt a mentality of victimhood. We are here neither as “culture-shapers” (masters) nor culture-defenders (victims)  we are simply servants.  Those who have a deep, abiding hope in the risen Christ, and a enduring reason to love those with whom we live.

2. We need to move from hostility to hospitality.

“One of the most painfully evident aspects of the Church’s life  at least in public  is our fear and our contempt of those who differ from us. It is true that we do have and we must have deep differences with our neighbors. That’s what it means to have convictions in a pluralist age. And it is true that some of our neighbors are going to be hostile to us because we’re Christians… But it’s also true that God loved you and me while we were enemies. Our neighbors, every single one of them, is made in his image and they have an irreducible dignity. And we have to be the people  the poets  who can recognize the beauty where it is and welcome them in.”

As Greg said this, I was convicted. Do I assume that I’ll be persecuted for my faith in a secular city, and is that why I’m always defending myself before a conversation has ever begun? Why is it that as a shrinking minority I feel the need to assert my “rights” to live a Christian? How might I simply open my workplace, my office, my dining room table and share my life with those that disagree with me? This is what Christ has first done for me  yet what I also find so uncomfortable in the reality of my Tuesday mornings  and Saturday evenings.

Yet inviting in the stranger is perhaps one of the most powerful things people of Christian faith can do in this pluralistic age. 

3. We need to move from competition to collaboration.

One of the most disappointing afflictions in contemporary Christianity is the way that we seem more eager to build a brand for ourselves than to build a common good for us all…

“It is actually as we join together that we grow up into what [Paul] calls the full stature of mature, Christian personhood. And because of this, we’re called to labor diligently to situate our gifts not simply in relationship to our own personal sense of calling, but to our brothers and sisters — to not simply get up in the morning and ask ‘What do I want to do?’ but ask ‘What needs to be done?’ ‘Who’s doing it?’ and ‘How can I join them?’”

I’m guilty of this. We all are. Brands must be built  it’s the only way we can market our products in a noisy world. I get this. But can the boundaries between brands and competitors melt a bit? Can we find ways to work together with rival schools, rival tech companies, rival businesses  even “rival” churches  for the good of all? (Could we even find ways to bless our competitors?)

Finding a way to live in distinctive conviction yet humble collaboration is a huge challenge for the church today. And for me personally as I try to walk the narrow path of both conviction and compassion.

4. We need to move from an emphasis on the individual to the institutional.

Social healing in a disintegrated age cannot  it literally cannot  be a product of focusing on individuals, or even of focusing on individuals in aggregate and hoping by some math it will add up to a transformed society. It doesn’t work that way.

“We have to have an institutional horizon to our love. And the reason for this is because the social order that we inhabit and all the individual lives that we have are inescapably institutional in nature. We are formed by institutions at every point, and so if we’re going to be a people who reimagine a civic ecology, we’re going to have to take institutions very serious and learn that it’s not unspiritual to do that.”

Government employees, professional service providers, waitresses, nurses, engineers and even pastors are formed not only by individuals, but by the shared values, ethos and pathos that grow up in groups of people. Renewed cities require renewed institutions.  Perhaps if we begin the counter-cultural work of thinking institutionally, our witness and service to the city start to take hold.

5. We need to move from the merely political to the public.

Politics does not in fact create [culture change], but actually expresses a larger cultural system of which it is a part. And so politics emerges out of this larger network of interpenetrating institutions that I’m calling the ‘public,’ or economics and politics and art and medicine and religion. All of these things together are forming an ecology. And because of this, we have to renounce our obsession with merely political change, because that is not how social healing works.”

Politics is downstream from culture. Because this is true, efforts to change the culture through electing the right officials will nearly always fail. Instead, culture springs up from an ecosystem of work  oil & gas, health care, finance, education, religion, restaurants and hotels.

Politics is important. It always has been for people of Christian faith. But being people of Christian faith in cities does not start in Washington D.C. It starts at work.

6. We need to move from a focus on cultural triumph to a focus on the common good.

“One of the saddest features of our current cultural setting, which is definitely on grim display during the political season, is our tendency to think of the goal of all of our labors is actually the goal of conquest. To think that we’re trying to win. This aspiration is to defeat our neighbors in a high-stakes culture war…

“But listen: It is true that we serve a king  King Jesus  who right now is enthroned on heaven. Right now. Ruling all things. And as an expression of his reign sends light and wind on the righteous and on the wicked alike. He’s giving gifts to people who are opposed to him.

“And what that means is, if that’s true of him, if we seek to inhabit his kingdom, where we seek the good not simply of ourselves, but of our neighbors… We are not trying to win; we are trying to love. Because of this, as we think about what it means to engage the city and to reimagine a civic ecology, we have to remember that our goal is not cultural conquest; it is to seek the common good.”

We are not trying to win; we are trying to love.” This is what I meant earlier by the beauty of Greg’s vision. He’s on to something  a way of civic responsibility, yet also one of deep peace and deep joy.

In the end, the way of love is the path toward a renewed city.

This post first appeared on denverinstitute.org. 

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CultureWork

A Gift to the World

 

Several weeks ago, I sat down to share about the DIFW vision with a prospective donor. As I began to explain our mission, I could tell there was a mental obstacle.

“So, you can’t evangelize in schools or business or the government,” he said. “So what it is exactly you’re trying to accomplish?”

Before I could reply, the conversation moved to Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby, and the contentious religious liberty issues surrounding the overt faith of their founders. Though I’m personally encouraged by the Cathy and Green families, I could tell that our organization was being sucked into a culture war, one that tends to see the Church as almost a drain on a liberal, pluralist society – one that impinges on the  rights of the individual.

But instead of getting drawn into the culture wars, I instead decided to say what has been true for millennia: the church is a gift to the world. There’s a reason why we chose the title “A Gift to the City” for our recently release 2015 Impact Report. It’s worth remembering that for centuries, Christian men and women have seen their work as an opportunity to bring life to society. The Church has long been a blessing to all – both Christians and people of other faiths (or none at all).

How has the church been a gift to the world? A few examples come to mind:

1. The Church gave us the first universities.  The University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (1150) and the University of Oxford (1167) all were born out of Christian cathedral schools and monastic schools, dedicated to not only training clergy, but also learning about law, astronomy, medicine, music, math, and the “trivium” – grammar, logic and rhetoric. Say what you will about the drawbacks of medieval Europe: all modern institutions of higher education have a historical debt to Christians believing that investigating God’s world could benefit society at large.

2. The Church gave us the foundations for capitalism. No, it didn’t start with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Nor was it due to the Protestant work ethic. Rodney Stark has convincingly made the case in The Victory of Reason that the free market enterprise system was flowering in 12th century Italy. The supposed “dark ages” bloomed with inventions like the water wheel, horseshoes, fish farming, the three-field system of agriculture, eyeglasses and clocks. Why? There’s a good reason that capitalism didn’t arise in China, Islam, or the global south. Stark explains, “All of these remarkable developments can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation, entailed in the gift of reason.” Innovation, the power of reason, and the moral underpinning of capitalism (of which trust is the most important) all flowed not from either Roman law nor Greek idealism – but from Christianity.

3. The Church gave us the framework for human rights and democracy.  Christianity offered to the world a doctrine which would forever reshape our political life: all people are made in the image of GodEveryone. Though a form of democracy did start in ancient Greece, we see in Plato’s Republic that his version of democracy is one we wouldn’t want to see anywhere today: a republic where only property owners could vote, where women and slaves were property, and where philosopher kings ruled. There was voting, for sure. But certainly not a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

The roots of democracy we enjoy today come principally from the Magna Carta, composed in the Christian West. (Which is one reason why today’s Chinese Communist Party leadership doesn’t want it touring around their neighborhood.) First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Magna Carta (1215) originally limited the rights of kings, but was later used in the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution as precedent for protecting the rights of all people. Though nearly all societies have, at times, had their leaders approved by the people, the theological doctrine that all people are made in the image of God was the original source of one’s human rights – far before secular versions arose in the Enlightenment (See Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution). Though the Church has also been guilty of violating human rights (i.e., The Inquisition), it has also been the source of the protections and rights we enjoy today in a liberal democracy. (If you need more convincing here, read Marcelo Pera’s Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians. It’s stunning.)

4. The Church gave us the birth of science. Isaac Newton did more theology than science, and Francis Bacon not only gave us the empirical method, but also worried that his methodology would be used by demons to distort its good intention. Sounds weird, but they lived in both the worlds of Christian theology and scientific inquiry. Talk of investigating the “book of nature” was a Christian idea – that we could see who God was both through Scripture and in his creation (Ps. 19, Rom. 1).

Often we only hear half of the story – that the Church opposed Copernicus’ heliocentric universe and persecuted Galileo, the “father of physics” and observational astronomy. But truth be told: Galileo’s run in with Pope Gregory XIII was more political than scientific (the Inquisition thought his biblical interpretation looked Protestant). His insights were initially adopted by Pope Gregory and used to revise the church calendar in 1582. Galileo himself believed that God had given us reason, senses and intellect and expected us to use them as tools to interpret Scripture. Galileo writes, “For since every truth is in agreement with all other truth, the truth of Holy Writ cannot be contrary to the solid reasons and experiences of human knowledge.” Generations of scientists, from Blaise Pascal to George Washington Carver (including a large number of prominent scientists today, like Francis Collins), are motivated by their faith to do science.  Again, Stark makes the case that it’s the doctrine that God, the Logos, is a God of reason that led to science erupting not in China, Islam, India, or the Americas – but in the Christian West. Controversial thesis, I know. But hard to ignore the civilization in which the scientific revolution took place.

5. The Church gave us the art of Michelangelo and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is perhaps history’s greatest work of art. And Johann Sebastian Bach would often sign his symphonies Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory), one of the five “solas” of the reformation.  Handel would often do the same. Artists for generations have drawn fuel from their faith – from Leonardo Davinci’s The Last Supper to contemporary artists like Makoto Fujimara. Bono isn’t half bad either.

6. The Church gave us the Civil Rights Movement. It also bears mentioning the Martin Luther King Jr was a Baptist preacher. The fundamental drive for Dr. King’s leadership in a nonviolent movement to correct “America’s original sin” (slavery, and hence racial discrimination) was a Christian notion of love – even love for one’s enemy. This was first and foremost a movement of churches – and only secondarily was it political. The Civil Rights Movement would have been impossible without the Church.

We could go on and speak of the monks in Ireland washing the feet of travelers and setting the precedent for modern hotels, or Basil of Caesarea creating arguably one of the first hospitals (at a time when many Romans abandoned the sick or dying in plague ridden cities – see Stark’s The Rise of Christianity), or heroines like Florence Nightingale who essentially founded the profession of nursing out of a sense of duty from God’s call.

Though any Christian would be quick to confess that we’ve sinned deeply in the past (the Thirty Years Wars comes to mind) and today as well (the tragic segregation that remains in our churches), we can’t forget: the church has long been a gift to the world. 

So, with that, the question of the Church’s role in the world need not focus on fear-based arguing about losing a position of relative influence in the now post-Christian West. Instead, as those inspired most fundamentally by the grace of God (grace=gift), we can instead ask, What has God put in my hands that I might give to another? Instead of just going to church to get “filled up” by worship music and a sermon, might the Triune God actually use the Church to be the conduit of his abundant life to the entire human family (John 10:10b)?

Featured Photo: Christ Feeding the 5000

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