We are living in an era of great upheaval and confusion. Sven Birkerts, a perceptive literary critic, said:
We are living in a society and culture that [are] in dissolution. Pack this paragraph with your own headlines about crime, eroded values, educational decline, and what have you. There are many causes, many explanations. But behind them all, vague and menacing, is this recognition: that the understandings and assumptions which were formerly operative in society no longer feel valid. Things have shifted; they keep shifting. We all feel a desire for connection, for meaning, but we don’t seem to know what to connect with what, and we are utterly at sea about our place as individuals in the world at large. The maps no longer describe the terrain we inhabit. There is no clear path to the future. We trust that the species will blunder on, but we don’t know where to. We feel imprisoned in a momentum that is not of our own making (The Gutenberg Elegies, p. 20).
We feel, many of us, like we are on a forced and nearly irreversible slide into the abyss. The world doesn’t look like it used to look. We wrestle with bewildering questions and deal with threatening issues. All the absolutes we trusted have disappeared, and rock-solid certainties have eroded before our eyes. We are anxious for ourselves, and afraid for our children. In response to this anxiety and fear, we scramble to find or to create places where we can be comforted and reassured. We want the church to be that kind of place, a place where we can be insulated from ambiguity and protected from difficulty. We look to the church to be a place, maybe the one place, where the hard questions do not intrude and where disagreement does not disturb. We want the church to be a place of good views, meaning, of course, our views.
I understand that desire, but I also understand that it is wreaking havoc in the contemporary church. Increasingly, congregations divide into warring camps usually labeled “conservative” and “liberal.” Both camps share a flawed assumption in common: each believes that we are saved by the “stands” we take on controversial issues rather than by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. Each forgets that the church lives in good news, not good views.
Hope grows from standing in the good news of Jesus, rather than on contemporary controversial issues. If we stood gratefully and joyfully in the gospel, it would mean that grace and acceptance would matter more to us than judgment and agreement. We could relate openly to other people, even the people with whom we disagree and of whose behavior we disapprove, because we would remember that all us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Our certainty would be in the assurance that we and all other sinners have been saved by the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.
It would mean that we could extend compassion rather than insist on conformity. We could embrace those who struggle to walk in the ways of Jesus Christ, even those who haven’t come very far, because we would know that we and they are still in process, still “working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” Our certainty would be in the knowledge that “the one who began a good work in us will bring it to completion on the day of Christ Jesus.”
It would mean that telling the story of Jesus would be more important than crusading for a particular agenda. We could open the Bible and share fellowship with all people, even the people whose politics and opinions are vastly different than our own, because we would recognize that the power to persuade and convince belongs to the Holy Spirit and not to us. Our certainty would be in the conviction that, while we all now “see through a glass darkly,” there is coming a day “when we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.”