The debate about the place of religion and faith in public life is buzzing right now. Same-sex marriage is the obvious hot topic, but it also intersects with conversations about religious freedom, euthanasia and a number of other issues.
And we’re wrestling with these questions within the church as well. Earlier in the year Morling College’s Not in Kansas Anymore Symposium focused on these questions. How should we think of ourselves in relation to the culture around us?
When we seek answers to questions like this, we often go looking for metaphors to help us. We seek to understand one idea by making reference to another idea. These metaphors can enlighten our thinking, but they can also entrench unhelpful ways of seeing the world.
To give you a common example, we often use the metaphor of ‘scales’ to help us understand the competing priorities in our lives between work and family. We talk about work-life balance.
While some find this useful, we fail to realise that in using this metaphor we have set work up as the opponent of the rest of our lives, including family. We unconsciously start to see work as the competition to family life, when it is probably more helpful to view these two as essential and complimentary parts of our mission to serve God in the world.
What metaphors do we use to understand our relationship as Christians to the culture around us?
A number of speakers at the Morling Symposium explored whether Exile is a metaphor that helps us better understand this relationship.
Historically, the discussion about this topic sets up an imaginary continuum. At one end we have ‘the good old days of Christendom’ where the church enjoyed its place at the centre of culture and influence. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘exile’, where the church is pushed to the margins of our culture. Exile usually assumes that there will be a reduction in size and influence, and a battle to hold on to our beliefs and way of life in the face of a growing anti-Christian culture.
Is Exile a helpful metaphor?
It certainly resonates with what many Christians are feeling as we address the reality that our views are not as privileged as they used to be. Perhaps it helps people to accept this shift and deal with the associated fear. But does it help me to personally live more faithfully for Jesus in my own community or circle of friends?
Like work-life balance, this metaphor seems to lock us into a way of thinking about our relationship to culture that assumes we sit somewhere on a spectrum between two extremes. We find ourselves yo-yo-ing between the centre and the margins of our culture. And usually the conversation has us slipping from the centre. Our response to this slip is either to accept it and retreat, or to fight it and engage.
I’m pretty convinced that a preoccupation with a spectrum between centre and margin, as the two key frames for our self-understanding, isn’t going to get us to where we need to be.
What if there was a different and more helpful metaphor?
One example that I have written about in the past, picking up on a picture that Andrew Sloane first suggested, is the idea that the church is like an unfenced garden in the wilderness. You can read more on that here.
However, the point of this post is not to suggest a new answer. I don’t know the answers, but I am sure that new ways of thinking about our relationship to society would be helpful for the church. It’s time for us to reimagine what this relationship looks like in this new era. My hope for this article is that each of you who read this will engage in that process.
If we believe that the Jesus story makes sense of life and that God wants to use us to work out God’s purposes in the world, then we need new metaphors.
We need metaphors that recognise God’s people are in some sense set apart, while at the same time humbly recognising God is at work through the Holy Spirit in all of God’s good creation, and that we are equal in worth with all humans who are made in the image of God.
We need positive metaphors that help us overcome both fear and self-importance.
We need metaphors that help build confidence in God’s people because we know who Jesus is.
We need metaphors that will help us bear witness to Jesus and his ways, for the sake of the world and the glory of God.