Those who journey through life without succumbing to the vices that are so easy to cultivate, do so because they have paid at least some attention to the ways that Jesus stepped into a less-than-ideal situation and in so doing redeemed.
My answer to those question is that God is speaking. He speaks to His people primarily through Scripture, which is our rule of faith and life–the lens through which we evaluate the content of other messages or impressions that we believe come from God.
God also speaks through patterns in our lives, through people, through the book of nature. Together these things fall into the category of general revelation.
The problem is not that God isn’t speaking. The problem is that we’re not listening.
While I was reading a paper from a doctoral colloquium on church and mission (I know, geek alert), I came across a little phrase that captured my imagination: the recovery of our contemplative faculty. The phrase comes from Catholic theologian Ronald Rolheiser’s book, The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God.
Rolheiser’s central assertion is that, “our senses require healing and rehabilitation so that they are adequate for receiving and responding to visitations and appearances of [God]” (p.23). Contemporary society connives to kill our awareness of God: “God dies in our awareness and eventually in our churches as well” (p.107).
Coming from a significantly different theological perspective, Rolheiser echoes an observation made many years earlier by Stephen Charnock (1628-1680). Charnock decried the absence of God in the lives of many professed Christians: “…there is something of a secret atheism in all, which is the fountain of the evil practices in their lives, not an utter disavowing of the being of a God, but a denial or doubting of some of the rights of his nature” (24).
These two radically different Christian writers both touch on our deafness to God:
Rolheiser believes that we have simply crowded out the voice of God, become deaf to his voice because of our narcissism, pragmatism, and restlessness.
Charnock believes that we purposefully close our ears to the words of God due to our internal desire to be an authority unto ourselves.
Surely both men are right. Surely there is within each of us a unique blend of the desire to be an authority unto ourselves and the a canny inability to allow ourselves to be distracted from the counsel of God.
Protestant churches—especially evangelical ones—typically sing their theology. In the absence of a formal liturgy hymnody carries the weight of theological formation. Scripture shapes our beliefs about God more in the theory than in reality. The average Christian spends little time exploring how the confessions interpret Scripture. Instead, our sung worship songs shape our beliefs. Their influence comes by virtue of their memorable lyrical quality. It takes less effort to memorize a song (sung regularly) than a catechism that is ignored.
That’s why I was so disturbed by the recent decision of the committee compiling the forthcoming Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God to omit the song, “In Christ Alone.” You can read the story here. If hymnody is sung theology then what does this decision say about the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
This decision is troublesome for several reasons. First, the committee weighed two ways of conceptualizing what a hymnal is. They asked the question: Is it a collection of diverse hymns reflecting a variety of theological views present in the church? As such, any commitment to a unified theological vision would be downplayed in favor of representation of various views or styles. Their should be no problem including this popular song.
They also asked: is a hymnal a “deliberately selective book” that emphasizes some views and excludes others on the basis of its “educational mission” (I prefer “catechetical mission”) for the church? This requires some degree of theological unanimity.
The prevailing view of the committee was that a hymnal has an educational message, which requires rejecting some theological viewpoints that no longer comport with the view of the church.
This is an important consideration. I agree with the decision of the committee to envision the hymnal as something that is consonant with and advances the theological vision of the church. The problem is that in making this decision the committee has emphatically set aside a theological vision that comports with my own. In the rush to be inclusive the committee has, in actuality, excluded a theological vision that has inspired many Christians over the centuries, not the least of whom is John Calvin.
John Milbank offers a biting critique of Fresh Expressions, a missional church movement in the Church of England. As ever, Milbank’s words are insightful and a helpful challenge to some problematic elements of missional praxis. I’ve embedded the article below and recommend that you take a read.
By way of a brief response to Milbank let me offer the following observations:
Missional does mean participating in the mission of God in the world.
Part of that mission is the establishment of particularized churches.
These churches ought to be the base camp from which missional Christians go forth.
These churches ought to preach the Word rightly, administer the sacraments, and equip the saints.
The homogenous unit principle, though understandable, is not rooted in Scripture but in capitalism.
Sacramental worship and missional ministry are complimentary rather than contradictory.