New Minds for Old Wine

We’re going to need to change the way we think. Seriously.

I don’t mean we just need to learn some new things – as in adding information to our existing knowledge base. No, with the kind of shifts in our culture that we are facing today, on multiple fronts, this isn’t just a matter of acquiring new insights or skill sets. We’re facing something much bigger than that.

In a sermon a few weeks ago, I summarized the church in our current time this way: I said that the church in the Western world today doesn’t really look like the Jesus of the gospels. Instead, we look more like a “Platonic, European, Reformed, Individualistic” kind of church. Each of those adjectives was intentionally chosen because each of them represents a major philosophical frame which has shaped the evolution of the church up to our day. What I realize now, is that these frames are not unassailable theologically, and that, when compared to the Jesus of the gospels and the legacy of the First Century Church, they actually have taken us in the wrong direction.

These four are too big to go into detail here. But let me summarize. Platonism is the belief in the separation of body and soul, matter and spirit. The idea here is that all the good stuff God intended is soul and spirit -- and all that points us toward our forever future in heaven. Matter, earth, and here-and-now, are all bad things that have to be endured somehow until then. But where, then, is the Kingdom of God? Where is resurrection? Where is the new creation? We’ve traded the gospel emphasis of Kingdom come for the promise if paradise later.

European reminds us that, since the emperor Constantine united the church with the state in 325 A.D., the advancement of the gospel has largely happened under the dominion of Christendom. This union of church and state has taken the gospel everywhere around the globe, but it also re-shaped the gospel in its own empire-serving image as it went. Armed with the power of the state, Christendom imposed its will on indigenous and subjugated people everywhere – often by means of occupation and force. The very thing Jesus said His kingdom wouldn’t do (John 18:36). And the stain lingers.

Reformed takes us back to the ideals of the Protestant Reformation of sola Scriptura. That was never a bad idea, but what we’ve done with it over the past five centuries hasn’t helped our witness. The idea of orthodoxy (or “right thinking”) was infected by the Enlightenment’s elevated view of the human mind. We lost our humility before the Word of God. It became something we could master, define and enumerate. We lost sight of the fact that the written Word of God is given to testify to the Living Word of God: Jesus and the Holy Spirit. When the written Word of God no longer points us to Jesus, we’ve lost our way. Jesus remains the ultimate hermeneutic for all of Scripture (Luke 24:44-48).

And finally, the ideal of the “rugged individual” has pervaded our worldview. Our sense of selfhood has been formed by the progression of Western political thought over the past nine centuries. From the limiting of regal “divine right” under the Magna Carta, to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and self-actualization – we’ve been schooled in a view of civilization that has elevated the individual above all else.  Our idea of community has been shaped by Enlightenment philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, whose vision of the ideal state was one of equal individuals held together by the cords of social contract. The problem with this is nicely spelled out by Michael Ignatieff in his book, The Rights Revolution: “The basic intuition of rights talk is that each of us is an end in ourselves, not a means toward an end. Each of us wants to frame our own purposes and achieve them as best we can.” We live with the shortcomings of this philosophy all the time. But this is not community as divinely intended. This is not the kind of interpersonal relationship we see within the Trinity, which is our origin model. This is not humanity under the lead of the Holy Spirit, from Whom we learn that all human relationships are predicated upon “submitting ourselves to one another, out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).

My point in all of this is that we, as a civilization, are WAY off track. Our understanding of ourselves, our communities, and our churches, is fundamentally flawed. We’ve inherited a skewed worldview, which we’ve uncritically embraced as “divine truth”. As a result, not only is our world a mess today – but so is the church at large.

But here’s the good news: To quote our dear sister, Elizabeth Pierce, “Jesus called. He wants His church back.” We are rediscovering the Jesus of the gospels. And no wonder! We’ve been praying for the Holy Spirit to come! We’ve been praying to learn more of what it means to be a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led church! And what does the Bible tell us the Spirit does when He comes? (Here’s a hint – read John 14:26).

All of this has given me a new appreciation for what the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans. “Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds (Romans 12:2). We have a lot to learn. But before we can do that, we must be willing to unlearn some things. We must stop trying to add divine revelation to our already flawed worldview. We must critically unlearn those aspects of this world’s conforming ways which are fundamentally contrary to Jesus, and His transformed way of being.

And that’s no small shift.

In his classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes about what it’s like to face this kind of monumental change. He writes that we all want to be progressive in our thinking. But, “if you’ve taken a wrong turn, the person who turns around and goes the other way is the most progressive.” The church in the Western world has veered off course – away from the Jesus of the gospels. It’s time we turned around. We need to get back to Jesus.

- Kevin