in thinking about some of the ways the american church has cornered ourselves into unhelpful spaces, my thought is that who we are (part 2) has direct impact.
my untrained theological assumption: we develop theology based on what we want the theology to do for us.
what i mean is this: no theology is done in a complete vaccuum. it’s impossible not to bring our own cultural lenses to scripture and theological reflection. this isn’t necessarily a bad thing — it just is. we need to be wary of our cultural lenses, because they can create problems for us, especially if they’re not acknowledged. it seems to me that the field of ‘practical theology’ tries to acknowledge this, to some extent.
when renee padilla was struggling with what the gospel really has to say about the poor and oppressed of the world, his ‘what i want theology to do for us/me’ resulted in a spreading of the premises of liberation theology. when miraslov volf wanted to think through ‘otherness’ through the lens of his own upbringing in croatia, he wrote exclusion & embrace. when josh mcdowell wanted to provide ‘conclusive proofs’ to the claims of christianity, he wrote evidence that demands a verdict.
this isn’t only true in theological writing, of course. our churches — often without much intentional theological reflection — develop our ecclesiology (especially in the practical ways ecclesiology plays out in our structures and practices) based on our hopeful outcomes.
it is exceedingly rare to find a church or writer or speaker or theologian who says, “i really didn’t want to find this — i was completely caught-off-guard by this. it wasn’t my intention at all.” certainly there are personal stories that follow this route: lee strobel’s conversion story is one of these. as a journalist, he was looking at building a case against christianity; but was suprised by the opposite. however, his (theological) writing (in bestsellers like the case for christ and all its sequels) set out with a pre-determined bias to convince readers.
again, i’m not saying this is bad. we just can’t fool ourselves into thinking that our church practices (and theology) are untainted by our values.
some might counter that there are theological conclusions (about church, in this case) that are ‘universal’ and have stood the test of time. sure — i can agree with that, at least on one level. clearly, the theological conclusion that the church is the bride of christ and part of god’s mission to the world (for example) are things straight out of scripture that all orthodox christians would all stack hands on, regardless of other theological differences, race, country or time in history. but the implications of what that means — how we live that out in our structure and practices and values: we still ‘persuade’ our conclusions, either thoughtfully or thoughtlessly.
so my contention is: these things that are part of who we are as americans — bits of our identity — are both part of what has been great in the american church, and formative in our blind-spots as well.
i’m going to loop back and unpack each of those ‘american idiosyncracies’, and talk about some of the potentially negative repercussions they’ve created in our current setting.
next up (in part 4): the unfortunate results of american reactionism.