Here are my thoughts for this coming Sunday, Christ the King Sunday.
A number of years ago a colleague and I wrote a paper entitled “Liberal Arts and Science Education in the 21st Century”. Our purpose in writing the paper was to suggest that 1) the goals for science education should be directed towards helping students think, 2) that science was a part of the liberal arts tradition, and 3) unless science was again considered a liberal art, there would be problems.
Last year I wrote that we would never have another president like John Kennedy (“Ages of Wisdom”). As I noted then, it wasn’t so much that we would not allow his personal flaws and medical problems to be covered up as they were then but rather because he was probably the last President to speak in literate paragraphs with references to history. He expected those who heard his speeches to understand those references and to understand what he was saying. He did not expect people to always agree with what he said but he did think that those who heard his words should understand them. President Kennedy’s words could not be reduced to sound bites or jingoism; his thoughts were not simple statements easily forgotten but ones that dwelt in our minds and challenged us to think before acting.
Coupled with our observations, it is quite clear that we have not progressed towards a thinking society. If anything, we have regressed. Our clamor for quality education in elementary, junior high/middle, and high schools has lead to a glut of testing. But all we gain in testing is a measure of how many facts students know. Very little of the testing is directed towards critical thinking, evaluation and analysis, the higher end of the cognitive learning scale.
If we are created in God’s own image (Genesis 1: 27) then we have the ability to think beyond the boundaries of our limited world. We have the capability to see possibilities where possibilities do not seem to exist. But we are unwilling to do so out of fear and ignorance than lack of ability. We may be afraid to do this because we remember what happened when people tried to build the Tower of Babel. (Genesis 11: 1 – 10) But the people built that tower because they were motivated by pride and arrogance, not necessarily out of desire to know and understand the world around them.
It isn’t just in education that our understanding of the world around us has probably regressed. Shortly after I posted the “liberal arts” paper on November 18th, there were a number of links from http://www.instapolitico.com/liberal. This is a political blog with a number of categories, including “liberal” and “conservative”. From an examination of the material in the liberal section, this blog uses a search engine to find articles with the word “liberal” in the title. It would seem that the designers of this blog made the assumption that any article with the word “liberal” in it must have political connotations. Of course, the article that I posted only speaks of politics in a very peripheral sense.
But this confusion illustrates one of the problems that today’s society has. Our ability to understand what is said and written is hindered by a reaction to key words or thoughts. Within the framework of the church, if you say that you are liberal, then it is assumed that you are not a Christian. And if you say that you are a Christian, then it is assumed that you are conservative.
We no longer are willing to take the time to think about what is going on in this world; we are quite willing to let others think for us and tell us what to think. Instead of thinking for ourselves and analyzing what is happening, we have apparently decided, in the words of the reading for Jeremiah for today (Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6), to let our shepherds lead us astray.
It is not just our political or societal leaders but our religious leaders that have led us astray as well. Our inability to think creatively, to think beyond the boundaries is showing up in our inability to present the true message of Christ. The message that comes from the church can hardly be the message that Christ first gave us some two thousand years ago. When Christ first stood up in the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth, He proclaimed that He had come to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and free the oppressed. Yet, the message in many of today’s churches is one of exclusion and rejection. Or it is that wealth beyond your wildest dreams is yours if you only ask God. The message in many churches today is no longer about salvation and repentance. It is no longer about reaching out and bringing in the ones who are lost; it is about what God through Christ can do for you. It has become a singularly self-centered religion.
Christ was aware of His own death on the Cross; Christ understood that His mission ended on the Cross and our mission began with the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. The modern church, in its various denominational forms, needs to focus on ways to continue the message.
But the modern church, in its various denominational forms, is fixated on its own death. It is the death caused by the bottom line of the secular world; it is the death that comes from a fear that the word of the church has no validity in this world. It has caused churches to seek ways that focus on bringing people in without any consideration for what the message might be. The church focuses more on the music, the setting, or softening the message in order to improve its bottom line, not fulfill its mission.
It has reinforced the beliefs of many that religion has no intrinsic value in today’s society and only serves to cloud a person’s mind. Cynics in society today are like the first criminal in today’s Gospel reading. (Luke 23: 33 – 43) Condemned to die on the cross, they ridicule the church for its inability to save itself.
Granted, if I think of Christianity in terms of rational thought alone, I might conclude that it is only, as Karl Marx wrote, “the opium of the masses.” But rational thought is no guarantee in life, for it does not have a way of explaining the often unexplainable. It is quite easy to see the contradictions in the Bible and say that any religion is based on false information and only supports close-minded thinking.
But when you stop to think about the parables that Jesus told, you have to wonder if He wanted His disciples to be close-minded. Those who heard the stories and only thought of them in terms of the old and present society often did not understand what Jesus was telling them. The twelve disciples were among those at the beginning who did not understand. But ultimately, they did understand and it was through their understanding that we have come to know what Christ’s message was.
Charles Handy, the noted philosopher, noted Jesus changed the thinking of the time by teaching that the meek should inherit the earth, the poor would be blessed and the first would be last in the ultimate scheme of things. (Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason, pg 23) In doing so, Jesus challenged the system and caused people to think in an entirely different manner. You cannot be a true Christian unless you are willing to change your thinking and see things in a new way. You cannot do this in a solely rational manner; you must have a vision based on faith. By the same token, you cannot see new things in a new way based on faith alone; you must be able to act in a rational manner.
A few weeks ago I characterized the emerging church as a church with a coffee shop or a coffee shop with a church. I will admit that I was wrong in that characterization. An emerging church is more than simply a “change of scenery”; it is a re-statement of what a church is.
There are two documents that I discovered “John Wesley and the Emerging Church” by Hal Knight and “Five Streams of the Emerging Church” by Scot McKnight ) that go into detail about what the emerging church is and what it isn’t. But it is clear from reading these documents that the United Methodist Church was the emerging church when it was created and it can be the emerging church today. It is a matter of understanding who we are and where we are headed. It is more than simply trying to do things which favor the bottom line of the organization. It is about stating what faith is and who Jesus Christ is in ways that are relevant to today’s world. It is what Jesus did when He was on this earth and it is what He expects us to do today and tomorrow.
You may think that Jesus was a fictional character but if you believe in Him, it doesn’t matter if He did in fact exist or not. But rational thought says that if we are still thinking about the man who walked the lands of Galilee some two thousand years ago and whose presence then changed the course of the world, then there must be something to what we believe.
And if you feel that our ability to think and act removes the need for such thoughts, then you have to be prepared to offer a means of seeing beyond what normal vision provides. Somewhere along the line, you need to believe.
Paul reminds us of what we believe and why. There will come a day when we will be like the two criminals who hang on the Cross on Calvary along with Christ. If we do not see the world in a new way, we will be like the first who can only see the world in its present form. We shall die without hope. But, if we see the world in the form that it is to be, then we will be like the second criminal who saw Jesus as He was, the true Messiah and our death will only be a physical one but our lives will gain everlasting life.
If we have accepted Christ as our Savior, then we have to work for the new kingdom. To work for the new kingdom is more than making disciples; it is bringing about changes which take away evil. To do so is more than simply encouraging or berating people to change their lives. It requires that you give them the means to change their lives and that requires that you use your ability to think and act accordingly.
We end the Christian calendar year today and we begin Advent, the season of preparation for the coming of Christ. What we say and do will be a reflection of what we think and what we believe. If we think and believe in the old world, then nothing will happen. But there is a new order brought about by the presence of Christ in this world. It is up to us to see and enable this new order of things.